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Page last updated at 12:04 GMT, Saturday, 9 February 2008

Sorry seems to be the newest word

By Quentin Sommerville
BBC News, China

Soldiers shovelling snow in China
Soldiers tackle the snow in China's big freeze
It is not unusual for China's most senior leaders to meet with the Chinese people but it is rare for them to do so with an apology on their lips.

As China froze, and its electricity and transport lines failed, and millions huddled and shivered in train stations, China's top leaders rushed to calm and reassure their people.

And not only did they apologise - they empathised.

At Guangzhou railway station in the south - where hundreds of thousands were stuck - Prime Minister Wen Jiaobao addressed the crowd.

"Comrades, I'm Wen Jiabao," he shouted through a loudspeaker.

"I am here to comfort you. You have suffered a lot and I feel your pain."

Wen Jiaobao often plays what one blogger friend describes as the warm and fuzzy man-of-the people, to President Hu Jinatao's lofty technocrat-in-chief.

But "I feel your pain" takes this role to new levels.

He was beginning to sound like an American chat show host.


But Wen's approach worked - standing in freezing stations, or clambering up snowy hillsides, he was a genuinely inspiring presence to those who saw him and those who heard about his visits.

His message resonated with those miserable souls stranded across the country, to people like Zhang Dongshen.

I met him and his friends outside Guangzhou Zoo.

It was New Year's Day and they were stranded far from their home in Sichuan Province.

At a little over 1 ($1.9) the zoo's entrance fee was too much for them.

"You could buy new clothes for that kind of money," he said.

He works in construction earning far more money in Guangzhou than he would in his home province.

For the first time ever he would not be making the two-day journey back to see his family at Chinese New Year.

I joined Zhang Dongshen and his friends for dinner that evening. We ate spicy Sichuan food, a special fish was ordered.

Stoic commuters

His friend explained to me, if you eat this your belly will be full all year.

Everyone it seemed, was making the best of it.

In all the cities and train stations I have visited recently there was frustration at the delays but there has been little anger towards the government.

This has caused incredulity from colleagues back in London, used to their own milder, commuting nightmares, they asked why the Chinese were not revolting.

Perhaps it was because Chinese people, especially those from the countryside, have an extraordinary capacity for stoicism - at least up to a point.

Here they call it eating bitterness.

Travelling home at this time of year, even without the bad weather, is a gruelling ordeal.

Armoured cars help clear snow and ice from a highway in Hunan province
Temperatures remain below freezing in parts of China

Packed trains, standing room only and journeys that last for days.

Too much for people back in Britain to swallow but not for tens of millions of Chinese who put up with it every year without much complaint.

And time and time again at the railway stations, people told me, "what could the government do, the weather is really bad."

This message was echoed by the Chinese media which, as always, gave its full support of the government's efforts.

There were extraordinary pictures and descriptions of tanks being used to clear the snow - soldiers machine-gunning ice from frozen power lines.

From the newspapers, one memorable photograph sticks in my mind: heroic troops attacking the snow with shovels, their line disappearing into the thickness of a blizzard, a red banner flying above.

But why were they using shovels, was this the best that a modern China could offer?

Damage limitation

Of course the weather is unpredictable - to an extent - but surely it is the job of emergency services to be prepared for the worst case?

Early in the crisis the weather brought chaos to some of China's far off provinces but it took weeks for the leadership in sunny Beijing to declare an emergency.

Wen Jiabao
For many in China, there is a belief that borders on mysticism, that despite all the inequities of society, if the leaders, smiling Wen and wise Hu, hear about your troubles, they will fix the problem

And as someone in the state media told me, there were three guiding principles for the coverage.

Do not dwell on the damage done but emphasize the efforts of the authorities.

Instead of focusing on suffering, report the people's high morale.

And do not ask questions about why China was so quickly overwhelmed.

"Only when the masses are reassured, can the country be at peace. Only when the country is at peace, can the leaders be relieved," Wen told reporters.

And for many in China, there is a belief that borders on mysticism, that despite all the inequities of society, if the leaders, smiling Wen, and wise Hu hear about your troubles, they will fix the problem.

One commentator has compared Wen to the "good official" of Chinese lore who safeguards people's interest when local warlords or distant emperors ignore them.

And of course when millions of your people are suffering, packed in their thousands, cold and wet - and when none of them voted for you (because you are an unelected Communist) - it makes sense to be as warm and fuzzy as possible.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 9 February, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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