In 1908 the geographer Zhang Xiangwen plotted a line across the middle of China. Stretching from the Qinling Mountains in the west to the Huai River in the east, it was intended to mark the point at which southern China ended and northern China began. Above the line the staple crop was wheat, Zhang wrote, and below it rice.
He also noted that in the areas south of the line, the temperature rarely dropped below zero in winter. True as that might have been, Zhang’s name has been taken in vain by many this winter. While his observation was intended to be purely geographical, it was used by the government in the early fifties as the cut-off point for central heating. To this day – by law – buildings north of the line must be heated, while those south are not.
This arbitrary arrangement has been borne with quiet resentment by those living in the south. However, as China struggles with its harshest winter in almost three decades – temperatures dropped below zero in the southern city of Changsha — calls are growing for the rule to be scrapped.
“Heating should depend on peoples’ needs, not geography,” wrote the Legal Daily this week, adding that it was an issue of “social fairness”.
In a similar vein CCTV’s website compared the need for heating to the need for clean drinking water.
“China’s material standard is much higher today. Using the north-south dividing line to create a one-size-fits-all standard is no longer scientific or reasonable,” CCTV said, pointing out that places only a few miles apart fall either side of the line, even though their climates are identical.
A poll this week by the Shanghai Daily asked whether the city – which is south of Zhang’s line – should also have a central heating system. Two thirds of respondents said yes.
So why has this situation been allowed to persist for so long?
Part of the problem is that central heating in northern China is just that – water heated at a central plant and pumped out into pipes across the city. The arrangements, inherited from the Soviets, are hugely inefficient and do not allow households to adjust their radiators according to their needs.
Although cities such as Beijing have begun phasing out the current system, China still spends about Rmb70 billion ($11.25 billion) a year keeping the north warm during the winter, says the China Daily.
But thus far the debate seems to have focused on whether to replicate the existing system in the south, rather than find other alternatives to the reverse-cool air conditioning and portable heaters currently forced on shivering southerners.
“Why should we have to pay for the right to be warm when our northern brothers get to walk around in T-shirts in their apartments for free,” one angry southerner wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent.
According to meteorological data, the average temperature across China since late November was -3.8 degrees centigrade, with the mercury dropping as low as -40C in Inner Mongolia, which led to the death of 180,000 livestock. Damage to crops further south has also pushed food prices up in anticipation of a supply shortfall later this year.
The cold weather is also impacting on transport, with more than 1,000 ships trapped in Laizhou Bay in the northern province of Shandong and many airports cancelling flights due to icy and foggy conditions.
Inflation hit 2.5% in December; the cold snap may drive it higher.
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