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When the chunyun migration first occurred in mass numbers in 1995, straining the nation's outdated transportation infrastructure, the government tried to alleviate the pressure by ordering factories to keep at least 60 percent of the migrant employees at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?

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.

Migrants' jobs at construction sites or factories allow them to save a portion of their salaries to send home, but with urban real estate prices skyrocketing, buying a place in the city almost always remains out of reach. In a society where urban homeownership is often the definitive measure of success and belonging, the inability to afford a home can leave migrants feeling like losers, heightening their sense of displacement. Policies ostensible designed to "protect their personal safety" further drive them to city periphery, where they live in walled communities under police surveillance. "Without an apartment, we can quarter in small space," a migrant wrote in a letter he posted on a web forum popular among city dwellers. "But please don't ridicule us: Is it our fault that we cannot afford a home?"

The support network of families and friends is essential for survival in rural China, where the social safety net is ragged and often nonexistent. When migrants arrive alone in a new city of strangers, they seek to replicate that network by relying on the help of laoxiang, or fellow landsmen, other migrants from the same town or province. Facing uncertain prospects at recruiting fairs and among the middleman employment agencies known for their questionable credibility, many newcomers land their first job through laoxiang connections. It's not difficult to find construction teams of men all from the same town, or shoe production lines composed of girls speaking the same provincial dialect. In the absence of an effective labor union or other channels to voice grievances, these regional bonds also help workers come together and bargain with their employers. The famous 2010 strike in a Honda factory in Foshan, which sparked a wave of copycats across China's east coast, was organized by two migrants from Hunan province, also the hometown of Mao Zedong, known for its revolutionary spirit.

Discrimination from city elites and recruiters who look down on their regional background may also help deepen migrants' provincial identity. Migrants from the most populous but less developed Chinese inland provinces can be particularly victim to these prejudices. Urban families hiring babysitters or housekeepers often inquire applicants' province of origin before making their decision; recruiting fairs routinely feature signs claiming "only interviewing Zhejiang workers," "not considering Anhui applicants" or "no Henanese." Indignant and helpless, many migrants find solace in tightening their bonds with their laoxiang, or may choose to confront these prejudices by associating themselves even more strongly with their home province, in a sort of proud defiance. In a bestselling book on regional stereotypes, Who Did the Henanese Offend?, the three Henanese co-authors living in Beijing defend their provincial heritage by singing praise for the greatness of the land that bred philosophers such as Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu. "Not everyone can live up to their names like the Henanese can," they wrote.

As migrants move from city to city, the meaning of home becomes both broader and richer. The sense of confusion and displacement that chases nearly every migrant, perhaps an inevitable byproduct of China's breakneck economic development, can often only be escaped when late January rolls around and the migrants step onto homebound trains and trucks. This year as the ticket war rages on, even this brief comfort seems to be in jeopardy for many. The new online ticket purchasing system, the main venue for booking chunyun tickets this year, is poorly designed and too technologically challenging for migrants unfamiliar with computers. Many resorted to the old means, waiting outside ticket booths at train stations, often in line for days, to be told that the Internet buyers had bought up all the slots. In a letter to the Ministry of Railways, Huang Qinghong, a Chongqing migrant working in Wenzhou wrote, "Lining up for tickets during chunyun is a torture for us migrants every year, but when we were eagerly waiting for it this year, we don't even get to have it anymore. ... You came up with the Internet ticket-purchase system while sitting in air-conditioned rooms, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, but have you thought of our life?"

On an Internet forum discussing the letter, another migrant added, "If we have a choice, we won't be going home only during Chinese New Year."