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Clockwise from top: Workers remove ice from a cable in Weining county, Guizhou province. South China was hit by cold weather in early January, with the average price of vegetables rising continuously for 10 weeks. Residents try to clear ice from the street in Chenzhou, Hunan province. Tao Liang / Xinhua He Maofeng / for China Daily Zhan Yan / Xinhua
Cold snaps in southern China have triggered rising vegetable prices, disrupted transport and reignited debate over central heating, as He Na, Hu Yongqi and Zhang Yuchen report.
Huang Hui, a 33-year-old English-language teacher at a Shanghai university, once had a coveted job as team leader with a multinational company in Beijing.
She may have realized her ambition of becoming a project manager had it not been for her parents, who constantly reminded her it was time to get married and settle down.
Instead, Hui decided to leave the capital almost three years ago to pursue an academic career, living a quiet but independent lifestyle.
However, her peace and quiet ended in May when her mother suddenly arrived in Shanghai, ostensibly to look after her daughter's health, but doubtless to point her in the direction of marriage.
Huang racked her brains about how she could persuade her mother to return to Beijing but constantly failed. As the temperature began to fall, their time together became strained, and at weekends they frequently didn't talk. Huang sat, cloaked in a blanket, watching films on her laptop, while her mother wore two sweaters, a vest and a down jacket in the sitting room to watch TV.
Just as Huang came close to despair, to her surprise her mother suddenly packed her bags just after Christmas and said she would return to Beijing - and a heated home - as she could no longer stand the cold in Shanghai. "It turned out the cold was too much for her. Even though I was also complaining about the cold weather all the time, at least it came to my rescue," Huang said.
But her relief lasted only days, as Shanghai has no citywide central heating system like Beijing. Even though she uses an electric blanket and air-conditioner at home, Huang still misses the cosy feeling of living in a centrally air-conditioned home.
China is experiencing its coldest winter in 28 years, with the average national temperature remaining at - 3.8 C since November 2012, which is 1.3 degrees lower than normal for this period, according to sources from the China Meteorological Administration.
Huang found that after home and marriage, the cold weather is the third topic on the list for discussion at gatherings she joined.
"The winter here is really chilly. When can the south have central heating? If the weather continues to be severe next year, I may go back to Beijing to surrender to my parents," she said.
Huang's feelings are shared by millions living south of the Qinling Mountain-Huaihe River line, a boundary drawn by the government to save money in the 1950s, with areas to the south of the line not receiving central heating.
As it is not the first time in recent years that the south has been hit by severe cold spells, many residents are calling for new central heating systems to be installed in southern cities - with the calls becoming increasingly stronger this winter.
Zhang Lin, owner of a mobile trading company in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, who gave birth to a daughter less than two months ago, is one of those appealing for warmth.
"Except for the fine days, which can be counted on both hands, after my daughter was born, almost all the days have been bleak and unpleasant. The room is dark, without sunshine and chilly," the 31-year-old said.
"Even I have to put on more clothes to keep warm inside the room, let alone the baby. She's very sensitive to the air conditioner, so we turned it off. I know babies should never be overclothed, but fearing she may get cold, I have to put more clothes on her. She obviously doesn't like wearing too much as it hampers her movement," Zhang said.
"Why not establish a central heating system in the south? If the cold snap continues, how can my baby and I get through the days? She's too young to fly to my relatives in the northeast, where apartments are centrally heated. I can hardly stand these wet, cold days anymore."
Xu Guangjian, vice-president of the School of Public Management at Renmin University of China, said establishing central heating in southern cities will benefit residents and raise their living standards in winter.
However, this will not be easy. Walls of buildings in the south are generally thinner than those in the north, and windows are single-glazed, which makes it hard to retain heat. The cost would also be huge and if developers transferred this to consumers, would they have the ability or want to pay? Xu said.
Experts warn that many challenges lie ahead before the nation can expand its central heating coverage, including sourcing the massive investment that will be required, and persuading residents it is essential to build new thermoelectric power stations near their homes.
After numerous cold spells, many provinces and regions in the south have launched frost warning signals.
Snow affects traffic
The cold weather has affected transport in many places, including Anhui province. In Huoshan county, in the west of the province, more than 1,000 buses suspended service from December due to heavy snowfalls and icy roads.
Tucked away in the Dabie Mountains, the county relies on private buses to connect towns. Wang Bin, 36, had been running his licensed bus for more than 10 years, carrying passengers from his hometown in Hujiahe township to the county seat.
"Unlike North China, the snow on top here melts faster than that beneath. Then, the water soon turns to ice and makes the road even slipperier and dangerous," Wang said.
Drivers said the chilly weather this year was much worse than that of five years ago. In January 2008, the province was hit by a snowstorm, which caused widespread traffic chaos. A new expressway was built and opened in 2010, connecting Wang's town with the provincial capital, Hefei.
Usually, Wang would use an old road to save some money, but after the snow arrived he had to take the expressway, paying about 60 yuan ($9) in toll fees for a round trip to the county seat.
The extra cost was shared by travelers. Du Zhengwen, 40, a wholesaler who frequently travels between the township and the county seat, said he would rather go on the expressway and pay more. "It's much safer to go on the expressway that is cleared every day. Otherwise, I prefer to stay at home rather than taking a risk on the icy road."
Most buses have since returned to service but carry snow chains in case of emergencies.
Rural production loss
Guangdong province has been hit by a series of cold spells since December, with the north of the province experiencing severe frost. Crops were badly damaged, with more than 20,000 hectares affected, causing direct economic losses of more than 93 million yuan.
In the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, more than 54,000 hectares of crops in 12 cities had been affected by frost up to Jan 10, including 41,000 hectares of sugar cane that is certain to see decreased yield, according to sources from the local agriculture bureau.
Farmers are racing against time to harvest sugar cane, with sugar companies working flat out to limit their losses.
Ma Shantuan, Party secretary of the agricultural technology promotion station attached to the agriculture bureau, said damage to the region's crops is slightly worse than in normal years at this time but not severe enough to greatly reduce yield. However, if more cold snaps arrive, then losses will be hard to estimate.
The tomato and eggplant harvest in the northern part of Guangxi is facing almost complete failure.
Zuo Ming, director of the bureau's sugar crops division, said, "Our bureau dispatched many teams to affected regions to direct farmers' anti-frost measures to lower losses. I have been inspecting frost-affected rural areas since December and handed in a disaster report to the bureau every day."
Vegetable prices rising
The severe weather has also caused vegetable prices to rise in the south. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the average price of 28 kinds of vegetables reached 4.25 yuan per kilogram on Jan 8 and has risen continuously for 10 weeks.
Since October, prices, especially for leaf vegetables, have risen by 50 percent at the biggest vegetable retail market in Shouguang, Shandong province. The increases look set to continue to Spring Festival, which starts on Feb 10.
In Nanning, capital city of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, vegetable prices below 4 yuan per kg can no longer be found. Tomato, cucumber and cauliflower prices have all risen by 1 to 2 yuan per kg.
Factors influencing vegetable prices include bad weather en route, increased fees for long-distance transport, more expensive labor, and higher costs for management and wholesalers.
To tackle price increases, local authorities in Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province, opened a "green channel" on Jan 8 for vegetables, reducing the number of middlemen and transport costs. This involves the municipal government introducing a negotiation system to stabilize vegetable prices. When they fluctuate, the government is assigned staff to negotiate with wholesalers and retailers in setting affordable prices.
The system, being used by the Fuzhou government for the third time since 2010, ensures dealers sell at negotiated prices after buying from suppliers. The government then grants them tax relief and subsidies to compensate for the difference in the negotiated wholesale price and actual selling price.
Meanwhile, the National Meteorological Center said southern China will continue to experience snow, rain and freezing temperatures for the next few days.
Further freezing rain and snow has fallen on most parts of Guizhou province, affecting more than 570,000 people.
Local governments have relocated more than 5,000 people in 24 counties to avoid possible risks, and have also set up 68 rescue stations to offer relief, including food and clothing to those in need.
The lingering cold weather has caused direct economic losses estimated at more than 77.76 million yuan, mainly in the agricultural sector, Xinhua News Agency quoted provincial civil affairs authorities as saying.
The central government has stepped in, with the Ministry of Civil Affairs sending 2,000 tents and 40,000 sheets and coats to help people suffering from severe cold in Jiangxi, Hunan and Guizhou provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.
And the ministries of Civil Affairs and Finance have earmarked 6.8 billion yuan for a relief fund to help disaster-stricken victims with food, clothing, heating and other basic needs for winter and spring. The first batch of the fund - 5.44 billion yuan - was allocated on Dec 4.
Han Junhong contributed to this story.
Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org
(China Daily 01/18/2013 page6)