World’s Biggest Annual Human Migration Begins in China
By Didi Kirsten Tatlow, NY Times, Jan. 16, 2014
With a military-style precision that framed something very human and messy, the world’s biggest annual human migration—the Chinese Lunar New Year festival, known as Spring Festival—officially got under way in the first second of Thursday, Jan. 16, and will last 40 days, Chinese officials said.
Demonstrating a deeply felt need among hundreds of millions of people working away from home to return for the most important festival of the year, a good portion of China’s 1.35 billion people are expected to make over 3.6 billion journeys—by plane, train, automobile, bus, motorized tricycle and probably a few donkeys.
The sentiment of “home at any cost” is summed up by a catchy saying: “Rich or Poor, Home for New Year” and the enormous human activity needed to make that happen is called the “Spring Transport.”
That movement of people strains the country’s transportation system, with tickets hard to buy, controversies over ticket sale systems, black-marketeering by “yellow oxen” (as the marketeers are called), trains packed like sardine tins and fights over boarding, lines and seats. But the end goal—celebrating with family—is considered worth it. This year, New Year’s Day is Jan. 31, beginning the Year of the Horse.
At a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday, Lian Weiliang, a deputy chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, the central economic agency, said the figure of 3.623 billion expected trips was an increase of 200 million over last year.
Special attention is on the railway system this year, experiencing its first rush since its reorganization from a separate government ministry to a state-owned corporation in March 2013.
The railways have been under intense scrutiny since the former railways minister, Liu Zhijun, was dismissed in 2011 on suspicion of corruption. Last July, Mr. Liu was arrested, tried and sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve (meaning he is unlikely to be executed) for bribery and abuse of power. He had overseen a rapid expansion of the rail system. By 2015, China will have 120,000 kilometers of railways, about one-tenth of that devoted to high-speed trains, officials have said.
As for rail prices? They may not be raised to take advantage of people’s urgency to get home, Mr. Lian of the National Development and Reform Commission said, outlining a “Three No’s and One Investigate Policy,” meaning no deviating from state-set prices and investigations for any such deviations.
China Railway has debt of over 2.9 trillion renminbi ($510 billion), according to Chinese media reports citing a national audit conducted last year. Debt in the railway sector was highlighted when Bai Zhongren, the president of China Railway Group, the major railways construction company, reportedly killed himself by jumping from a building on Jan. 4, according to www.cb.com.cn, a Web site run by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The report cited unnamed sources as saying that Mr. Bai had been depressed and that the company was struggling to pay wages to its nearly 288,000 workers. It was the second suicide of a high-ranking railways official since Mr. Liu’s downfall, it wrote. The company has capital of 626 billion renminbi ($103 billion) and debts of 532 billion renminbi, it wrote.
None of that is likely to be uppermost in the minds of ordinary Chinese heading home for the holiday. They will probably be more interested in things like this: From Jan. 31 through Feb. 6, road tolls for “small passenger vehicles” will be suspended, China News Service reported.