Homesick: Why Chinese Migrants Will Take 3.2 Billion Trips Over 40 Days

Alienated and struggling to get by in China's big cities, migrant workers brave chaotic lines and difficult journeys for a chance to reconnect with what they left back home.

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A Chinese man carries his belongings through Beijing West Railway Station / AP

It is a scene too familiar to every resident of China's big cities: the normally bustling square in front of the train station seems eerily silent in the winter chill, packed with people standing in lines that snake to the edge of the square and extend onto sidewalks for nearly a mile. Men in army-green padded cotton jacket and women with sleeping babies fastened onto their backs wait with dreary eyes, some taking turns with their friends and spouses so that every few hours they can curl on the plastic clothes they spread by the wall and sleep.

Chunyun, or Spring Festival travel rush, is a period in which Chinese people working or studying in a far-away city return home to celebrate the Spring Festival, also known as the Lunar New Year, China's most important holiday. Over the past three decades, more than 250 million young laborers, mostly from the country's less developed inland provinces, have migrated to coastal cities in pursuit of better job prospects and a more prosperous urban lifestyle. The beginning of chunyun, usually in mid-January, can look like a sort of high-speed rewind of this 30-year trend, decades of migration run backwards over two weeks. Chinese travelers are expected to make 3.158 billion trips over 40 days starting in January 8, the largest periodic human migration on Earth. Many of the trips are over 30 hours long.

When the chunyun migration first occurred in mass numbers in 1995, straining the nation's outdated transportation infrastructure, the government tried to alleviate the pressure by ordering factories to keep at least 60 percent of the migrant employees at their workplace during Spring Festival. Factories were also prohibited from hiring new workers until 30 days after the holiday season. But the dictates fell apart when factories were unable or unwilling to enforce them. People's determination to reunite with their families was so strong that the state relented. Over the years, the number of migrants multiplied, but the upgrades to the nation's transportation system, though amazingly rapid, still lagged behind. After all, why should the state spend hundreds of billions of RMB to build an expansive railway system that, as social commentator Yang Hengjun has pointed out, would sit largely idle for most of the year?

Nearly one in four children is left behind by a migrating parent

As a result, getting hold of a train ticket around mid-January has turned into an annual nightmare for migrant workers as well as the government. For the first time, the state is allowing people to book tickets online or by phone, an overdue move aiming to reduce the days-long lines at counters. Officials are also requiring all buyers to use their real names and identification numbers when purchasing, to stem the ticket scalping that has plagued chunyun for years. The ticket web site server crashed, however, within minutes of opening, overwhelmed by the roughly one billion visits it receives daily. On phone lines, an individual caller might have to try several hundred times to get through, and even then only some lucky ones were able to secure a seat. The chaos was exacerbated by a rule that allows booking online only 12 days prior to the travel date.

When Zhang Xinchuan, a migrant in southern Guangdong province, failed to get a train ticket, he reconstructed his trip down as a zigzagging chain of long-distance bus rides and short flights. Asked by a reporter from local newspaper Southern Daily why he was so determined to go home, Zhang responded as if the answer were obvious. "Since I am not from this province, why should I stay?"

An observer might be asking the same question as the Southern Daily reporter: why endure such chaotic lines, not to mention an uncomfortable journey of many hours each way? Frustrated at the end of a ticket-purchasing battle and exhausted after a year toiling in foreign cities, migrant workers seem, based on the tenacity with which they pursue a route home, more eager than ever to embrace the comfort of their family and heritage. As modern China's whirlpool of change pulls individuals away from their past, people are finding new significance in the longstanding traditions that still remain, such as returning home for Spring Festival.

Since the 1980s, China's economic opening has lured workers away from their farmland with the promise of economic opportunities in faraway cities. They poured into metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai as well as special economic zones such as Zhuhai and Shenzhen, where underneath the prosperity fueled by their labor lurked the challenges of integrating into a new and very different environment. The nationwide hukou system, a remnant of the Mao era intended to keep farmers to their farmland, restricts access to subsidized services like public education and health care based on one's place of birth. The hukou system dismantled the traditional, multigenerational family structure. Adult migrant workers, unable to enroll their children into urban schools or afford to bring aging parents to live with them, often choose to migrate by themselves and leave their families back home. The number of left-behind children has reached 58 million -- nearly a quarter of the nation's children, according to an official report in 2009.

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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