Tomorrow the sun will rise on the Chinese Year of the Rabbit. The furry mammal represents a much gentler mascot in comparison to last year’s tiger. Yet throughout China, the mood leading up to Spring Festival has been anything but relaxing.
By the time the New Year’s rush is over in late February, an estimated 2.85 billion air, train, bus, ferry and highway trips will have been made by about 700 million people. Since mid-January, train and bus stations have been packed with people waiting up to 20 hours just to buy tickets. Official passenger numbers are some 11 per cent higher than in 2010. The annual travel glut has been called the world’s greatest migration: cities clear out, retail outlets close, and municipal services become sporadic for up to three weeks. To make matters worse this year, in late January freezing rain and snow crippled road traffic in southern Chinese provinces. And China’s new bullet trains’ ticket prices have forced some travellers to spend as much as half a month’s income on getting home (a Chinese migrant worker’s average monthly wage is approximately 1,200 renminbi, or about €132).
Despite 630 trains being added to the country’s railway network, and temporary ticket booths set up to expedite sales, train stations and airports were still jam-packed. “People on the outside really cannot comprehend the impact of Spring Festival on everyday life in China,” says Evan Osnos, China correspondent for The New Yorker, who lives in Beijing. “The entire country just leaves,” says Dustin Mills, a shareholder at Maxxelli, a real estate company operating in eight Chinese cities. “Even before they go home, our employees take time off to get tickets.” Mills warns western clients about the slowdown and knows that domestic business partners, or even favourite restaurants, are either understaffed or completely closed.
Another problem: some workers who go home never return. “For years we’ve paid our employees only half of their annual bonus before Spring Festival, the other half after, to make sure we don’t lose our entire staff,” says Maki Ueta, the co-founder of Sim’s Cozy Guesthouse, a 100-room hostel in Chengdu. Osnos explains that for many migrant workers, Spring Festival offers a logical end, or beginning, to jobs within a highly transitory labour market that operates on short-term work arrangements. “This is more than just a New Year’s Eve on the calendar,” says Osnos. “For a lot of people, it’s a complete reset.”
Spring Festival officially ends in 15 days but Chinese rails and road are set to stay crowded all month, as half the population returns, regroups, and begins what will certainly be another year of rapid expansion in terms of infrastructure, urban development and exports. In the meantime, happy New Year.
Kimberly Bradley is a Monocle contributor currently based in Chengdu