China's unlikely divide over home heat

How cold is it in China? It depends where you live.

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BEIJING // Tang Liang, a 24-year-old IT worker from the central province of Henan, might just live in the coldest place in China.

Sure, there are plenty of regions where temperatures regularly fall much lower than the -6°C that Xinyang experienced this winter, but then, as Mr Tang pointed out, they have central heating.

His hometown does not. Nor does anywhere to its south.

But travel just 60 kilometres north and all public and residential buildings are required by law to be insulated and heated.

"We have almost exactly the same weather as them. But they have heating and we don't," Mr Tang said. "We have to endure the cold more than anyone."

His plight has a historic basis. In 1908, the Chinese geographer Zhang Xiangwen published a work defining north China as anything above a line running at roughly 33 degrees north latitude from the Qinling Mountains in the west to the Huai River in the east.

When the Communists came to power in 1949 after decades of war and revolution, they relied upon Zhang's definition for deciding where to introduce heating systems. In an era of austerity, it was deemed that the south did not require them.

For years, southerners accepted this somewhat arbitrary decision, knowing that while they might be a bit chilly for a month or two, their winters were mercifully short and mild compared with those in the far north, where temperatures can drop to -40°C or lower.

But as China struggles though its coldest winter in almost 30 years this year, anger at this thermal inequality is growing.

"Installing heating in the south is now a matter of social fairness," wrote one newspaper. "The use of the Qinling-Huai dividing line to create one-size-fits-all criteria for heating is neither reasonable nor scientific."

A suggestion by one expert that southerners - of whom he is one - were used to cold, damp winters and that the introduction of heating would make them sick, only made things worse.

"Of course experts are not cold. They all live in big houses with private heating and stay in high-end places," wrote one outraged southerner on the microblogging site Sina Weibo.

According to many observers, the change in China and its people's economic status is actually part of the problem.

The huge district-wide heating systems of the north were built while China was under the influence of the Soviets - Russia still uses them to this day - but the era of huge social projects such as that has passed.

Chinese local governments and companies are now expected to take a more market-orientated approach to solving such problems and, sadly for the southerners, the systems in the north - in which water is heated at centrally located stations and pumped out to radiators across the city - are just not cost-effective or efficient enough to be replicated.

Wuhan, a city just below the Qinling-Huai line that says its lack of heating is leading to a brain drain, tried to build a modern version of the old Soviet system, but the authorities ran into another issue - China's limited fuel supplies.

"Everything is ready for this year's heating. But the thermal power plants informed us that they couldn't supply the heat because of the natural-gas shortage," Lei Xiangpeng, an executive at the Dewn Thermal Energy company, told Chinese state television.

So the people of Wuhan are getting through this winter in the same way as most of the other inhabitants: with the help of electric space heaters.

The demand on the electric grid is huge, often leading to blackouts.

But it is also much more expensive for the consumer than heating in the north, and less effective.

Mr Tang said he and his family - his parents and his brother - had all developed frostbite on their hands, feet and faces this winter.

This is despite using space heaters, wearing cotton-padded jackets and sharing beds on the coldest nights.

They also have to visit a bathhouse once every five days because it is too cold to wash at home.

"People shouldn't have to live like this anymore. China is a wealthy country now," said Mr Tang.

Wealthy it is, but rich in resources it is not, as the case of Wuhan's central-heating system illustrates.

And as air pollution in Beijing hit an all-time high over the last weekend - possibly because of the increased demand for heat in the past few weeks - there is reluctance to use more energy for heating. Yet southerners point out that they should not have to suffer just because the north is profligate.

"If China's first government knew that northerners were going to be able to wear T-shirts at home during the winter, they might have had second thoughts about the divide," one Wuhan resident quipped.