China cracks down on profiteering amid snow crisis

( dpa ) - China is cracking down on people accused of profiteering from food shortages and transport chaos in 19 snow- affected provinces, state media said on Sunday.

Train ticket touts are using their "special connections within the railway system" to buy large numbers of tickets and resell them for much higher prices to some of the millions of travellers trying to reach their home towns in time for Spring Festival, the official Xinhua news agency said.

One former station manager in the central Hunan province, which is still devastated by the worst winter weather for 50 years, has already been charged with abuse of power by reserving train tickets for "illegal dealers," the agency said.

Residents of Hunan's Zhuzhou city said last week that food prices had also soared after snow and ice cut power lines and disrupted most road, rail and air services.

Central and provincial governments have issued notices prohibiting unreasonable price rises for essential goods, and some local authorities have already taken action against people deemed to have breached the order.

A restaurant in Guiyang, the capital of Hunan's neighbouring province of Guizhou, was fined 50,000 yuan (7,000 dollars) on Saturday for raising the price of noodles by 1 yuan without authority, the agency said.

The eastern province of Zhejiang had rejected several requests for price rises by supermarkets but expected vegetable prices to begin rising on Sunday, it quoted Wang Jiarui, head of the provincial pricing bureau, as saying.

"We insisted that prices for milk and instant noodles should remain stable now and during the Chinese New Year holiday," Wang said.

Zhejiang was hit by an average of about 30 centimetres of snow on Saturday, with up to double that in the worst-affected areas, reports said.

The government is keen to limit the effect of the bad weather on already rapidly growing consumer-price inflation, which has risen by more than 6 per cent for each of the last three months.

It announced measures last month to control the prices of key commodities amid concerns that rising inflation was affecting social stability.

For the past week officials have been trying to get most of an estimated 5.8 million stranded rail travellers home by Wednesday, which is new year's eve in the lunar calendar, while millions more migrant workers have agreed to cancel travel plans.

Forecasters warned on Saturday that the grim weather would continue until at least February 8 or 9, leaving highways and railways iced up beyond any capacity to get the millions moving again.

The snow has caused direct economic losses of at least 53.9 billion yuan, Zhou Min, a spokesman for the Ministry of Civil Affairs, told reporters Friday.

The bad weather has killed scores of people and forced some 1.8 million people to relocate, destroying 223,000 houses and damaging 862,000, Zhou said.

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