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New Year crush looms for China

It is the biggest holiday crush in history. China's trains may not be able to take the strain - and neither may the passengers this weekend as they are stuffed through windows by professional "shovers" on the platforms.

One Shanghai newspaper has even offered practical advice on the problem of valuable lavatory space being converted into overspill accommodation.

Over Chinese New Year, which falls on Tuesday, the scale of the annual pilgrimage home for the traditional family gathering threatens more than personal discomfort. This year it is estimated that 200 million Chinese people will make 1.3 billion trips by train, bus, ship and airplane, up 6 per cent on 1994.

The prospect of almost 1 in 27 of the world's population on the march is not relished by authorities obsessed with social stability.

Shi Fangpeng, vice-chairman of the State Economic and Trade Commission, has told the People's Liberation Army and the People's Armed Police that their priority over the holiday is to "maintain order". n The government's first tactic has been to try to persuade people to stay put, particularly the 80 million-strong army of migrant rural workers who have moved to the cities to find jobs. Employers are offering lucrative overtime over the holiday period and rail fares have been raised until 11 March.

The weight of tradition is against the government, however. College students, white- collar workers based away from home and wandering peasants all share the national homing instinct at Chinese New Year, the most important holiday in the calendar.

Rising crime and a spate of recent man-made disasters have heightened the Chinese government's anxiety about 1995's mass migration. Last New Year, a stampede on the platform in Hengyang, Hunan province, ended with dozens of deaths. In the back of their minds might also be the spectre of 90-year-old Deng Xiaoping's death happening at the same time.

The Ministry of Railways is this year laying on more than 2,000 extra carriages. Another 5,000 converted box-wagons will offer what sounds like "freight-class". There will be nearly 600,000 long-distance buses and an extra 95 passenger ferries up and down the Yangtze river.

Few can be certain when they will be able to make the return journey. But to guard against the biggest mass truancy of all time, students are being guaranteed return tickets.