Wednesday February 6, 2008
Electrical towers damaged by snow in the city of Chenzhou. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP
But one resident says the centre is mostly dark, another that perhaps a third of the city has had power restored - for a few hours.
After living on rumours for almost two weeks, what Chenzhou's citizens know for certain is that fuel is low and they can see their breath indoors; that water is shut off and food prices are climbing; that shop after shop is locked and shuttered and that unlit apartment blocks loom from nowhere as they trudge through the darkened city.
"If you report on this situation, please make sure you have the true facts," said a stern-faced man at the railway station as I left the city this morning.
"Premier Wen Jiabao came and said it would be solved, so officials here said that 80% of power was back up. That's obviously not true. Look around you. The only lights are from people's generators. At home we hardly have enough water even for cooking."
Chenzhou, in Hunan province, is almost five times the size of Birmingham, with 4.6m residents. It is one of the cities worst hit by China's harsh winter and one of the government's greatest anxieties. Even in the hardest times, Beijing has strived to ensure a good new year for workers. Wen's recent visit is emblematic of the government's determination to reassure people that it is on their side. Top officials have toured affected areas and almost half a million troops have been drafted in.
Tanks have delivered food and candles to remote villages, while prices have been frozen in the larger stores. Such operations are proof of the astonishing ability of the government to mobilise its resources - and of its concern that people know it is doing so. "Only when the masses are reassured, can the country be in peace," the premier said yesterday. "Only when the country is in peace, can the leaders be relieved."
Chenzhou residents don't blame the authorities for the power outage itself. They can see what happened: along the roads, branches have been wrenched from trees by the same mass of snow and ice which downed lines and toppled pylons.
But houses are bitter with cold as temperatures fall to -8C overnight. The prices of candles and coal bricks has tripled or quadrupled. Gas canisters, when they can be found, fetch 130 yuan (£9.20) instead of their usual 80. People are beginning to wonder why repairs are taking so long, and when they will be finished.
"When we need water we have to go to a well a kilometre away and carry it home," said Mrs Wang, as she tended her street kiosk by the light of a single flame last night.
"There are rumours that it could be 10 or 20 days before the power comes back because so many towers were knocked down in the storms. But the radio said the government had promised to provide electricity before the first day of spring festival [new year]."
"That's a lie - it's impossible," interrupted a customer. "They only say that to make people feel comfortable."
Even officials like Mr Peng, who had worked day and night to clear a 45 mile jam on the expressway into the city, were sceptical.
"Spring festival is the most important day of the year. We can eat at home or eat out and after dinner we sit around together watching the big TV show. If we don't have electricity, it will be meaningless," he grumbled.
"Maybe we'll just have to sit in the dark and think. It seems like life has gone back to primitive times."
Only the hoteliers with generators are happy, their rooms booked solid by wealthier residents who check in for baths and showers or the chance to charge their mobiles. Even these establishments lack heating and cut power overnight to save fuel and rest the generators. Businessmen blunder and curse their way along black corridors, but know that they are privileged compared to the poor, the elderly and those in outlying rural areas.
"To young people it's bearable, but for the older people it's really horrible. They are too old to leave and too old to fetch coal and water," said Chen Xi, a kindergarten teacher escaping the city for the New Year.
"I saw Wen Jiabao when he came and felt touched - he's a 60-year-old man and he still cares about the problems of common citizens. I feel grateful for what the government and nation have done for us.
"But I also think the [local] government was not really well prepared. When I talk to friends in Northern China they say their governments are close to Beijing and if anything is wrong the citizens or officials can report it. Chenzhou is too far away. The Beijing authorities can't really manage our business."