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Stranded Travelers Mob China's Trains

Hundreds of thousands of desperate travelers, some hoisting terrified children or baggage over their heads, pushed their way onto trains Thursday as service resumed after the worst winter storms in decades paralyzed China.

Piles of suitcases, dirty blankets, duffel bags, clothing and shoes, abandoned in the chaotic stampede, littered the rain-soaked train station in Guangzhou, the starting point for the busy rail line north to Beijing.

Railway officials said the restored service could carry 400,000 passengers a day, but hundreds of thousands of stranded people, most of them migrant workers, were still waiting to leave the city.

More streamed in every hour to try to catch a train home for next week's Chinese New Year in one of the world's biggest annual mass movements of people. A record 178.6 million people - more than the population of Russia - were expected to ride the rails. Most would be riding in "hard-seat class," in train cars with only hard wooden seats.

To control the crowds, police built a massive corral the size of two or three football fields around the train station plaza. Thousands of travelers were herded into the outdoor waiting area, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, pressed tightly against one another. Some hefted their luggage over their heads, while others carried children on their shoulders so they could breath more easily.

"I've been stuck here for two days, and I stood here in the plaza all last night and couldn't sleep," one scruffy migrant worker in a green work suit yelled to a reporter before he was swallowed up by the crowd.

As soon as one wave of passengers was allowed to board trains, police allowed another to leave the plaza and enter the train station to wait some more. This would spark a stampede as people pushed past guards and dashed into the building.

A policeman helped one woman by carrying her toddler, the child's tearful face scrunched up in terror. The mother ran behind the officer, clutching the nape of his coat so she wouldn't get separated from her child.

Several women became overwhelmed with emotion as they neared the station and began crying. A woman in a pink jacket fainted and was lifted over the sea of people as she was passed over the crowd to receive medical help.

China's rail system was thrown into chaos last weekend, when heavy snow in regions just north of Guangdong province brought down electrical lines that power the trains. Guangzhou - the capital of Guangdong - quickly swelled with migrant workers who had just taken holiday leave from the thousands of factories in the province. The nation has nearly 200 million migrant workers.

The freakish blizzards, which are forecast to continue, also caused dozens of deaths, blackouts and airport closures in southern, central and eastern China - regions that aren't accustomed to such severe weather and lack the equipment to deal with it. More than a foot of snow accumulated in the hard-hit provinces of Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui, Zhejiang and the city of Shanghai.

In Guangzhou, the crisis showed the toughness of the migrant workers and their high threshold for boredom - traits that make them excellent workers in factories that make everything from Honda sedans to Apple iPods and Nike sneakers, and have lured away millions of jobs from the rest of the world.

Most slept outdoors or on the floors of schools and convention centers as they patiently waited for the trains to run again. So far, there have been no reports of riots.

Zhang Yusheng, a 45-year-old truck driver, was stoically waiting with his wife to go home to central Henan province so they could see their two children - a trip they can only make once a year, and which normally takes 20 hours by train.

"We came here last night because our train was supposed to leave this morning, but there is no way we're going to get on it," Zhang said with no signs of agitation. "There were just too many people ahead of us, so we are just going to wait here until there is another train we can get on. We might have to wait two days."

Most of the workers showed up in Guangzhou dressed for the normal moderate weather in the province, which shares the same latitude as Florida. But the cold snap caused temperatures to dip down to 39 degrees.

Only a few had coats or parkas, and most endured the cold driving rain in cheap polyester blend sweaters covered with light jackets or tattered blazers. They sloshed around in canvas sneakers or flimsy leather dress shoes.

The storms also took an "extremely serious" toll on crops, said Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Communist Party's leading financial team. "The impact on fresh vegetables and on fruit in some places has been catastrophic," Chen told reporters in Beijing.

Mixed in with the blue-collar masses Thursday were young professionals, easily spotted in their trendy glasses and new clothes. They didn't seem to be as hardy as the workers.

Cheng Xia, 28, a graphic designer, said he went to Guangzhou's station the night before, but gave up his spot and went home. He swapped his large suitcase for a small carry-on bag so he could navigate through the crowd better. He also packed a tote bag full of snacks and a roll of toilet paper for the trip home to the western province of Sichuan, normally a 20-hour journey.

"The weather is still bad," he said. "Once I get on a train, who knows how long I'll be on it? We could get stuck for three or four days."

Crop Damage From Winter Storms Called "Catastrophic"

A top agriculture official warned Thursday that snow battering central China has dealt an "extremely serious" blow to winter crops, raising the likelihood of future shortages driving already surging inflation.

Regions hit by the worst winter storms in 50 years provide the bulk of China's winter fruit and vegetable production, Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Communist Party's leading financial team, told reporters.

The full magnitude of the losses was unclear and much depended on the weather, he said.

"The impact of the snow disaster in southern China on winter crop production is extremely serious," Chen said. "The impact on fresh vegetables and on fruit in some places has been catastrophic."

Separately, the government plans to provide $13.8 million; in subsidies to revive production of crops, livestock and poultry, said Wang Shoucong, deputy chief of the Agriculture Ministry's planting management department.

Two weeks of near continuous snow and ice storms have paralyzed much of central and eastern China, stopping traffic, wrecking crops and killing dozens in road accidents and collapsed buildings.

Chen said the overall effect on agriculture depended on how long the storms lasted and whether they moved into northern China, which produces most of the country's wheat and oil crops.

"If it heads northward, then the impact on the whole year's grain production will be noticeable," Chen said.

Cabinet and party officials have ordered plans into place to deal with an emergency, he said.

Chen gave no figures on economic losses, although the Civil Affairs Ministry put the figure at $3 billion; since the storms began Jan. 10. Along with crops, fish and poultry farms have also been hard hit, and much industrial production is at a standstill.

Transport delays have already driven up vegetable prices nationwide, with those in the hardest hit areas more than doubling. Wholesalers in Beijing were quoted as saying only about 20 percent of the usual supplies of fresh vegetables were reaching the city.

Chinese cuisine places an emphasis on fresh produce, much of which is now grown in plastic-sheeted greenhouses that have buckled and collapsed under the snow.

In the central city of Zhengzhou, tomatoes had doubled in price since before the storms hit, local media reported. Lamb and other meat prices soared in the southern transport and manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, and in nearby Shenzhen, the cost of 47 types of vegetables had risen by an average of 36 percent, the reports said.

Fuel prices have also increased, with anthracite coal for household heating rising by 75 percent to $208; per ton from before the snow.

Authorities have ordered a priority given to coal and food shipments, with all tolls, fees and restrictions waived. On the tropical island province of Hainan, transport bottlenecks maxed out refrigeration capacity, with large amounts of fruit and vegetables at risk of simply being left to rot.

Food shortages complicate Beijing's struggle to lower inflation by increasing supplies, a task the government has made a top economic and political priority.

Double-digit increases in food prices for much of last year drove December's inflation rate to 6.5 percent.

In other remarks, Chen said January's inflation rate would likely stay around the December mark, despite the weather-related disruptions.

Inflation is unlikely to "fluctuate much above or below 6.5 percent," Chen said, stressing that was his personal view rather than an official prediction.

The government has already responded with a variety of measures, from freezing prices for a slew of goods, to boosting farm subsidies and curbing industrial use of corn.

Goldman Sachs economist Hong Liang said short-term price rises and production losses could be offset by a rise in grain production because of wetter conditions.

However, Liang said the crisis exposed severe structural problems and vulnerabilities, revealing the need for more infrastructure development and better economic management.

"A small shock to the supply side can cause massive bottlenecks and inflation pressures," Liang said in a report to clients.

The weather crisis overshadowed essentially good news for China's farmers in 2007, a bumper year when grain production rose 0.7 percent over the previous year to 501.5 million tons.

Farmers' per capita annual incomes hit a record high of $575; up more than 10 percent from the year before, although Chen warned they also suffered from rising consumer prices.

"The agriculture and rural economy has maintained good momentum," Chen said.

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