The number of trips made on the first day of China’s lunar new year travel period has plunged by 74% compared with last year, amid panic over the coronavirus pandemic, stringent rules and government enticements not to go home for the holidays.
Hundreds of millions of people usually make the annual trip home to see family over the new year break in China, in what is often referred to as the world’s largest annual mass migration. For many of the 280 million migrant workers it is the only chance all year to see their families, including children left in home villages while they earn a living in the cities.
But on 28 January, the first of the 40 days when people usually travel, there were 74% fewer trips taken than in 2019, according to newly released figures. The state broadcaster CCTV said air and rail travel was down by about 80% and road trips by about one-third.
China has had success in combating the virus after it first emerged in Wuhan in December 2019, resulting in what was then an unprecedented lockdown of an entire city, as well as border closures, mass testing operations, and other “wartime” style lockdown measures and health innovations. As recently as October, the country was feeling largely back to normal, and tourism was being promoted to boost the ailing economy.
But for the past few months China has been battling its worst run of outbreaks since the pandemic was at its peak in early 2020, and the governmental has called for people to avoid non-essential travel. Tough restrictions, including lockdowns and public transport freezes, have been introduced at various times across the country. A programme to have 50 million people vaccinated by Thursday reached a little over 40 million.
The government urged people not to travel, and public servants in some cities were ordered to stay home and set an example for others.
Li Xinjun, a 50-year-old housekeeper in Beijing, told Agence France-Presse she did not take a break last year because of the pandemic, and was heading to Hebei to see her son and his family. “My clients work in the hospital and because of the epidemic, they didn’t take leave, so I didn’t go home either,” she said. “I haven’t been home to see my children for a long time.”
Incentives on the table for those who stay at home include offers of free phone data, and 40m yuan (£4.5m) in coupons for Beijing residents. Others were discouraged from travelling by strict requirements for multiple Covid tests and weeks of “health monitoring”.
Some regional authorities have gone even further than central government regulations, including reports of a 14-day quarantine in government facilities for arrivals, prompting anger from citizens who generally only have a week of leave.
“Does the statutory holiday need to be changed to 14 days?” said one person on Weibo.
“Did you really think carefully about these policies?” said another. “Isn’t this restricting freedom? Does the health system in the rural areas even allow everyone to have a test every seven days?”
Zhou Wei, a migrant worker in Beijing, told the South China Morning Post he intended to cancel his trip home to Henan province.
“I had a tough year finding odd jobs in Beijing last year. A nucleic acid test costs around 100 yuan (£11.20), which is not a small amount of money,” Zhou said. “Even if I return to my hometown, the 14-day health monitoring period will deprive me of all the joys of the festival. Our village party secretary is always strict. I bet he would not allow me to move as I please.”
State media reports have sought to portray the situation in a positive light, or one largely driven by choice. China Daily ran profiles of people and their plans for the “unusual” holiday, while the Global Times interviewed Beijing workers who were making the most of things to celebrate with colleagues instead.
“I had planned to go back my hometown and celebrate the festival with family since the epidemic was basically under control, but after several cases were confirmed recently across the nation, our company encouraged us to stay in Shanghai and would provide a bonus and arrange work for us, so I decided to stay,” Wu Xiangxiang told China Daily.