Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Chinese minister bied exuses aan voor chaos in China

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- In a rare move for a Chinese politician, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao apologized Tuesday to the hundreds of thousands of people stranded in train stations across the country as the worst winter weather in half a century -- combined with crippling power problems -- nearly brought travel to a standstill for millions trying to go home for the Chinese New Year holiday.

A driver Monday braves the streets of the Suzhou Industrial Park in Suzhou, China.
4 of 4 more photos » "I apologize to you all," said Wen, using a bullhorn to address stranded travelers at a train station in Hunan province. "We are currently trying our best to repair the system.

"First we'll fix the electric grid. After that, the trains will run again. ... Then all of you can go home for the Chinese New Year," the premier said, bringing applause from the crowd.

Chinese media replayed the apology several times. The unusual gesture is likely to go a long way in pacifying the anger and frustrations of the thousands stranded across the country, CNN's Jaime Florcruz said. See I-Reporters' photos of the snow »

Chinese President Hu Jintao called an emergency meeting of the policy-making politburo and promised quick action and immediate relief for those trying to make it home.

The moves are intended to show that the government is in control and taking responsibility for the situation, Florcruz said.

They're also a signal to local officials to stop bickering over power usage. Provinces have been ordered to share power and energy sources so they can be diverted to where it's most needed.

The weather couldn't have come at a worse time: Millions of Chinese workers were trying to leave the cities where they work to travel home to their families for the Lunar New Year holiday, the Xinhua news agency reported, putting intense pressure on the country's transportation network. The holiday, also known as the Spring Festival, falls on February 7. Watch gridlock at Beijing's main railway station »

Wen flew out of Beijing en route to Hunan province on Monday night, but had to detour to neighboring Hubei province because of the bad weather. He completed his trip by train, arriving in Changsha City, Hunan's capital, on Tuesday morning, the Xinhua reported.

Brutal winter weather has pounded China's central, eastern and southern sections, stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers ahead of the holiday.

More than 300,000 passengers who wanted to board trains at the Guangzhou station were stranded in the city as heavy snowfall knocked out power and greatly slowed rail operations in Hunan province, along a line serving Beijing and Guangzhou, Chinese media reported. Armed riot police were deployed to keep order.

CNN's Hugh Riminton, reporting from the station, said the situation was dismal. Most of the people waiting were huddled under a roadway underpass, shivering with wet clothing and hair.

Families with children tried to find dry places to sleep, often ending up on the ground or pushed against walls.

Mercifully, the cold temperatures and driving rain were helping to keep down the odor from the public restrooms, he said.

Entrepreneurial food vendors wove their carts among the throngs, selling homemade goods after most restaurants in the station put up barriers to keep people from sleeping and crowding in their establishments.

Periodically, rumors spread through the crowd that a train at long last is arriving. Mobs push toward the gates until it's clear no train is coming, Riminton said. Incredibly, hundreds of people keep coming to the station to catch a train, despite widespread news reports that the trains are not running.

Guangdong railway authorities said traffic on the Beijing-Guangzhou line probably wouldn't return to normal for most of the week.

The winter precipitation caused roofs to collapse and made traveling treacherous, leading to at least 49 deaths, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and local officials said. Some 827,000 people have been evacuated in 14 provinces since January 10, the ministry said, and damages were estimated at 22 billion yuan ($3 billion). The region is home to nearly 78 million people.

Chinese Ministry of Public Safety spokesman Wu Heping said nearly a million police have been dispatched to help keep roadways open.

Early Tuesday, a passenger bus plunged off a slippery mountain road in southwestern China's Guizhou province, killing at least 25 people and injuring 13, Xinhua reported.

Provincial officials said the bus veered off an icy, snow-packed highway near Zunyi City around 7:40 a.m. and fell into a valley more than 100 feet (30 meters) deep.

Airports in at least 10 cities were closed temporarily Monday and, adding to the woes, seven of the eight highways connecting Guangdong and Hunan provinces have been cut off, Xinhua reported.

During the two weeks before and after the Lunar New Year, more than 177 million Chinese are expected to travel by train, and 22 million more by plane, the official English-language newspaper China Daily has reported.