Now freezing China is hit by power blackouts

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China's top leaders donned hard hats and anoraks to visit some of the millions of people stranded by the worst ice and snow in 50 years, as water, food and fuel dwindled.

The heavy snow has claimed at least 60 lives and over the past three weeks has racked up economic losses of £3.8bn, according to a Ministry of Civil Affairs spokesman. Snow continued to fall yesterday and more bad weather has been forecast.

Keeping coal output high and food moving has become a priority as 17 provinces experienced electricity blackouts. The national stockpile of coal to generate power has fallen to a mere six days. Many factories in China's central and southern regions, including those near the financial centre Shanghai, have been forced to suspend production because there is only enough electricity to supply private homes. The bad weather is also affecting farms around China, which could translate into still higher prices for food.

After months of keeping a tight rein on lending by banks in an effort to curb runaway economic growth, China's central bank has ordered provincial banks to speed up loans issued in the worst-hit areas. This is significant because it shows the government is more concerned now about making sure the economy functions normally than it is about overheating or controlling the inflation rate.

The bad weather augurs badly for the start of the Chinese New Year holiday next Thursday, and many of nearly 180 million migrant workers who normally travel home for the start of the lunar new year have been urged to stay put.

Officials in Guangdong said 11.2 million workers in the southern province had given up hope of returning for next week's holiday due to massive traffic jams leading north to other provinces. This is bad news for millions of families – for many of China's migrant labour force, Chinese New Year is the only opportunity to visit their loved ones.

The government has declared "war" on the bad weather. Millions of soldiers, paramilitary police and regular officers have been mobilised to help with disaster relief and Chinese air force Ilyushin II-76 transport planes have been flying in relief to isolated areas. Communist Youth League members and local "young entrepreneurs and young rich people" have been ordered to contribute to the relief effort in whatever way they can. The bad weather has dominated state media and there was lengthy footage of President Hu Jintao travelling the country to encourage relief workers. Mr Hu donned overalls and a hard hat to go 400 metres below ground to a coal mine in Shanxi province.

"Disaster-hit areas need coal and the power plants need coal," Mr Hu told the miners, who are working around the clock to keep output high. He also addressed dock workers at the port of Qinhuangdao, from where much of the coal is shipped, and urged the stevedores to keep fuel moving to the power stations of southern China.

He was also seen poring over maps as he few around the country trying to keep morale high. The Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, has also been on the road for the past three days.

As rail services gradually lurch back into life, priority has been given to coal transportation to fuel the coal-fired power stations. Millions of people are competing to fill the seats available on the trains that are running. Hunan province has been badly affected and the city of Chenzhou, which has four million inhabitants, has been without power and water for more than a week.

State television reported that Chenzhou only had enough petrol supplies for one more week and that rice, cooking oil and vegetables were also running out.