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Darkness descends over the Forbidden City

In the ancient heart of Beijing, the Forbidden City has become a little more forbidding.

At night, darkness creeps further toward the gates of the imperial palace. Streetlights along the main boulevard outside the Forbidden City have been dimmed to half their normal brightness. It's the latest evidence of China's worsening electricity shortage, a stark symbol of its overheated economy.

As the nation's capital, Beijing has always been a city of privilege, shielded from the economic woes of the rest of China, including the energy shortages that have plagued other cities for months.

But now, with China facing the worst power shortages since the 1980s, even Beijing is not immune to the crisis.

The darkened lights are just part of it. More than 6,000 Beijing factories are facing a series of rotating shutdowns this summer. Officials are warning of brownouts across the city in the near future. And this week, Beijing's city government ordered luxury hotels to take urgent measures to conserve energy.

The original plan was to switch off all air conditioners for one-third of the day. But when this threatened to cripple the tourism business, new rules came down.

Air conditioners must be kept at a warm 26 degrees, leaving many hotel lobbies increasingly unable to keep out the 33-degree heat from the streets. Laundry must be done at night. Escalators have been switched off. And hotel workers are being advised to take the stairs instead of the elevator for anything less than a five-storey climb.

Hotel staff, fearing an exhausting workday, are shocked by the elevator ban. "It's impossible to apply this rule," complained Tony Wei, a young porter at the luxury Dynasty hotel in Beijing.

He finds it astonishing that China could be suffering electricity shortages. "If it's a regulation, we'll try to follow it. But my personal view is that we shouldn't conserve electricity. Electricity is not like water -- water can be used up, but electricity is endless. This is a problem for the government, not for us, and the government should solve it, instead of affecting our life," he said.

In fact, the power shortages are a symptom of China's super charged economic growth, which is rapidly outstripping its ability to provide energy to sustain the boom. Some analysts are warning that the power shortage is becoming the worst crisis to hit China since the SARS epidemic of last year.

A shortfall of 1.2 million kilowatts is expected in Beijing this summer, while the shortfall for the entire nation will be 30 to 35 million kilowatts -- the biggest shortage the country has ever experienced. Across the country, 24 of the 31 provinces have suffered brownouts and power cuts in the past year.

China's economy is racing ahead at a 9.8-per-cent growth rate this year, and its electricity demand has soared by 16 per cent in the first four months alone. Despite a massive investment in power plants and nuclear stations, China cannot keep pace with the skyrocketing demand for electricity, fuelled by the rapid growth of power-intensive industries such as steel and auto manufacturing, the shortage of coal, the rising urbanization of its population, the growth of a new middle class with its demands for air conditioning, and the traditional inefficiency and wastage in China's energy system.

Blazing neon lights have become a symbol of China's economic boom, and the government has been reluctant to give up the bright lights of its urban skylines.

But the crisis has forced the country to accept restrictions. On each lamppost on Beijing's main Chang'an Boulevard, eight of the 13 bulbs have been switched off, and special power-saving bulbs have been installed. Business executives are being urged to abandon their suits and dress casually so they can accept higher temperatures in their offices.

About 6,400 factories in Beijing have been told to shut down for a one-week paid holiday at various times through the summer, with the shutdown to be compensated by the addition of an extra day in the workweek in September.

In Shanghai, the famed Bund -- the historic street of bank buildings along the Huangpu River -- is left in darkness without any lights whenever the temperature rises to 35 degrees or more.

In many cities, electricity rates have been jacked up, and factories have been routinely shut down for two or three days every week. Factory managers have tried to bribe government officials to allow them a reliable power supply.

Resistance to the latest restrictions, especially the shutdown of elevators for climbs of less than five storeys, has been stiff.

"I believe the majority of people will not accept this suggestion," said Lin Yao, an assistant manager of Beijing's five-star St. Regis Hotel. "It's almost impossible for it to become a regulation or an order for hotels like ours. A five-star hotel should provide a luxurious environment for the guests."

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