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Chinese greet New Year with unity, relief
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Amid the roar of firecrackers, the month-long weather crisis cleared just in time for Thursday's start of the Spring Festival, the most important holiday for China's 1.3 billion people.

State leaders, the army and the public made a uniform show of teamwork and determination, praying for a peaceful and harmonious Year of the Rat.

Passengers who had been stranded for days finally got home for an annual family reunion.

As of by 6 p.m. on Wednesday, public donations of money and relief goods sent to snow-stricken areas had reached 981 million yuan (134 U.S. dollars), according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Zhang Yue, a taxi driver in Beijing, told Xinhua that on average each day over the past week, he had driven five passengers taking clothes, usually cotton padded coats, to their workplaces.

"I often have people carrying large bags of clothes taking my cab. They say their working units are organizing donation activities and they feel obliged to answer the donation call," Zhang said.

Determination paid off. Electricity was partly or fully restored to 164 snow-stricken counties, including Chenzhou city in Hunan Province, after workers reconnected local power lines to the national grid on Wednesday. Power was restored just in time for the week-long Lunar New Year holiday. Portable generators allowed other people to carry on the annual practice of watching the Spring Festival evening gala of China Central Television (CCTV) on Wednesday night.

Every year, the gala has featured dances, songs, and comedy skits. This year was no different, although it had an additional theme: unity and the courage of the Chinese people to cope with the snow disaster.

An epic -- "Warm 2008" -- praising disaster-relief efforts, was penned by leading poets to boost national morale. It was expressively recited and movingly performed by famous artists, TV anchors and entertainment stars.

Millions of candles, as well as diesel generators and food, were sent to the affected regions ahead of the Lunar New Year, especially to people living in remote mountainous areas, by helicopters and military transport planes.

About 400,000 tons of vegetables, including potatoes, onions and white radishes, were gathered to be sent to disaster areas to avert price hikes. Vegetable prices have surged as snowstorms disrupted traffic and damaged crops.

The snow havoc, the worst in five decades, and even in a century in few areas, caused deaths, structural collapses, blackouts, accidents, transport problems and livestock and crop losses in 19 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, officials have said.

It has killed more than 80 people, toppled 300,000 homes, damaged 90 million hectares of crops and resulted in direct economic losses of about 80 billion yuan, according to the Red Cross Society of China.


Senior leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, went deep into coal pits or visited railway stations to encourage workers to produce more coal for power generation, to sympathize with stranded passengers and urge local authorities to prevent price hikes.

At an airport in southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on Tuesday, President Hu Jintao was seen to remove his coat and join a squad of soldiers to load relief supplies onto a helicopter.

Wen made three such trips over the past nine days, setting foot in such disaster areas as central Hunan, southern Guangdong, southwestern Guizhou and eastern Jiangxi. It was the fifth Lunar New Year's Eve in a row on which Wen didn't go his own home but spent the holiday with the public.

"Senior leaders visiting disaster areas are 'a natural response' by the government that shows care for the people," said Michael Chui, a Hong Kong-born Chinese living in Beijing. "It's an important move that shows the government is 'aware of the problem' and thinks about the people."

Folklorists believe that the Year of the Rat, the first in the cycle of 12 Chinese zodiac signs, ushers in "a time of hard work and renewal in many ways" and is "a good year to begin a new job, get married, launch a product or make a fresh start".

Netizen "Su by Lake" commented online: "We are looking forward to a brand new and fruitful year for China as the country is embracing such exciting events as the Olympic Games. Since we defeated the snow disaster, no hardship could frighten us."

(Xinhua News Agency February 8, 2008)

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