Surging floodwaters safely passed a crucial stretch of the Yangtze River Thursday, averting unpopular plans to blast dikes and inundate farm areas to protect cities downstream.

State-run China Central Television said a flood crest hit Shashi in central Hubei Province at 147 feet, just 8 inches short of the level that would have required levees to be blasted and the homes and fields of up to 330,000 residents flooded.The passage of the latest flood crest, the fifth this summer, was only a slight reprieve for millions of soldiers and volunteers struggling to save sodden dikes from the pummeling of the worst floods in 44 years.

Yet another flood crest triggered by heavy rains was forming on the Yangtze's upper reaches, state television said.

In the northeastern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, 113,600 people were stranded by floods that began Saturday and have already destroyed 410,000 people's homes, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. The floods have caused outbreaks of disease, with more than 600 people suffering dysentery, typhoid, cholera, skin rashes and eye diseases.

Harbin city, capital of neighboring Heilongjiang Province and a major industrial and agricultural center, declared a flood alert Thursday after the Songhua River rose to dangerously high levels, Xinhua said.

Market stalls and streets near a levee protecting the city were closed off, and 2 1/2 million soldiers and volunteers were watching for any leaks. Floodwaters also swept away bridges and cut rail links in Heilongjiang.

Residents in areas due to be flooded have strongly protested plans to divert water to protect the industrial center of Wuhan, with a population of 7 million.

Authorities reportedly have reduced the size of the area to be deliberately flooded, but the number of people who might be affected remains unclear.

President Jiang Zemin and other top officials arrived to inspect flood defenses around the crucial Jingjiang dike, near Shashi, early today, in an indication of the gravity of the floods, which have killed more than 2,000 people and left millions homeless.

So far, the government has only breached lesser levees. On Sunday, a dike was dynamited at Jianli, about 30 miles downstream, flooding a 72-square-mile swath of farmland and forcing the evacuation of about 50,000 people.

Despite the devastation, residents of flooded areas tried to create some sense of normalcy. Near the village of Weijia, in the badly hit southern province of Jiangxi, a family buried an elderly woman today against a backdrop of flooded homes and farms.

Mourners in traditional white sackcloth clothes and hats carried the wooden coffin draped with red cloth through thigh-deep water, then traveled by boat to a hill where the woman was interred in one of the few dry spots in the area.

Officials estimate direct economic losses from the flooding could reach as high as $24 billion, shaving one half of a percent off the economic growth rate for 1998.

Looting and other crime plague flood regions. The Supreme Court has ordered judicial officials to "make examples" of those caught destroying public facilities, robbing or assaulting flood victims, neglecting official duties or embezzling relief funds and supplies, Xinhua reported Thursday.