Only days before, hundreds of thousands of workers had began massing at transport hubs in the provincial capital Guangzhou, clasping their hard-earned rail tickets for their annual trip to their home villages for the lunar new year.
The “spring rush”, as it is called, is the largest annual movement of people in the world, with a total of 2.38bn journeys over three weeks, surpassing even the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Always a nervous time on the political calendar, this year the largest snow storms in 50 years amplified coal and power shortages to paralyse the transport system, closing train stations in large swaths of the country.
Beijing’s leaders were on edge. The crowds gathering in Guangzhou and elsewhere in the country represented potentially the most volatile situation faced by the leadership since the 1989 pro-democracy protests, which ended in bloodshed. Large, disgruntled masses of people, assembled in different parts of the country but united by a single grievance, are the worst nightmare of the leadership in a country with a history of convulsive upheavals.
Desperate to stem the tide of workers from their factories to the stations, the government initially deployed the usual weapons of crowd control. The army was mobilised and civil organisations activated, given orders to keep the workers away from the main station.
With the crowds still massing and anger rising, the talk-show hosts on Tuesday morning swung into action, propagating an unheard-of line of argument. Wouldn’t it be better, they suggested, for the would-be travellers to celebrate the new year at their factories instead, with their “worker friends”?
Such an argument is not an easy sell. Staying in Guangzhou would leave them far from their parents and, in many cases, children whom they are struggling to support and often see only once a year. So the talk show hosts appealed to the migrants’ acute sense of thrift. After all, most are in the Pearl River delta, the so-called “workshop of the world”, solely to make money and support their families in the poorer, undeveloped hinterland.
“Let’s say three workers are going back to Chengdu,” one host intoned, referring to the capital of south-western Sichuan province. “They will spend Rmb1,000 ($139, £70, €94) for train and bus tickets and meals. Imagine the great festival they could have at their workplace for that kind of money. Maybe it’s time to try that this year.”
Guangzhou state television later broadcast a special news programme reinforcing the message. Entitled “Remain in Guangdong for the New Year”, it trailed a worker and her young child as they left Guangzhou’s main rail station and returned to her workplace in nearby Zhongshan. There she chatted, on speaker-phone, to her faraway mother, who said, of course, that it would be better if her daughter and grandchild stayed safe in the south.
The propaganda push was capped by Wen Jiabao, the premier, who travelled to numerous cities, first in snowed-in Hunan, where he addressed stranded travellers packed into Changsha railway station, before going on to Guangzhou.
Mr Wen’s apology for the interruption to the holidays reinforced his cultivated image as a kind of empathiser-in-chief. Since coming to office five years ago, Mr Wen as well as Hu Jintao, the president, have made well- publicised appearances with groups left behind by the economic boom, eschewing appearances with the foreign chief executives who regularly seek an audience with them.
As of midweek, the government’s strategy appeared to be working. An estimated 200,000 workers in Guangzhou had cashed in their train tickets and boarded free shuttle buses back to their factory towns, an exercise that officials referred to as the “spring rush emergency evacuation”.
The government has also been lucky, with forecasts of new heavy snowfalls ahead of the peak of the travel season, early next week, yet to materialise. Beijing and officials throughout the country will be on high alert until the festival ends and workers return to the factories in the Pearl River delta and around Shanghai and Beijing.
Industry has been severely affected by the wild weather and power cuts, with scores of factories closing ahead of the holidays or reducing output. Such lost production, however, can easily be made up and should have no big impact on the economy.
In the short term, the greatest damage has been the destruction of crops and the delays in getting vegetables to market, adding an extra spike to inflation, which hit an 11-year high last November.
The widespread price controls instituted by Beijing to combat inflation, the number one economic priority of the central government at the moment, have in fact helped worsen the present crisis. On top of the snow storms, the root of the coal and power shortages is a partially deregulated pricing system that has pitted the two industries against each other in a game of chicken.
Coal prices have been largely deregulated in recent years. Power prices remain controlled. As coal prices have soared in recent months and weeks, mines have held back supplies to try to cash in, while the generators have reduced their power output rather than pay up.
The government had ordered the two industries to put aside their political games and for coal to be delivered to the power companies. But with many railway lines closed because of the weather and the system geared to transport the masses of migrant workers rather than carry freight, getting enough coal to the generators is no easy task.
In the longer term, the government will come under renewed pressure to reform the pricing system for energy.
“Once the weather clears up, the government will still be left with a mission impossible,” says Hong Liang, of Goldman Sachs. “How could they ensure sufficient energy production by requiring commercially oriented energy producers to incur financial losses?”
But if the country gets through the crisis with no serious riots, the leadership will simply breathe a collective sigh of relief.