For many Americans, Chinese New Year conjures up images of colorful parades and fireworks in celebrations at quaint Chinatowns across the United States.
In China, “bittersweet” is the word the government-controlled media often use in regard to the Lunar New Year festival, which starts Friday. The holiday is when Chinese workers are expected to return to their home villages and share time and gifts with their families and friends. Given that hundreds of millions have moved from rural areas to cities in recent decades, Chinese New Year has become a frenzied time of travel across the world’s most populous country. Some call it “the world’s largest human migration.”
During the New Year’s festivities – known as “Spring Festival” in China – government transportation officials estimate, people will make 3.6 billion trips. As of late December, more than 154 million train tickets had been sold for the 40-day period that surrounds the Lunar New Year.
For the past week, train stations in Beijing have been mobbed, and until a few days ago subways were crowded with passengers carrying bags and gifts. On a subway last Saturday, a woman with luggage dropped a box of kiwis she was carrying. As the fruits rolled around the car, several passengers were kind enough to pick them up and return them to her.
Airports also are busy, but with a different class of customer. They’re heavily used by wealthy Chinese who are returning home or spending the week in temperate resorts, such as Sanya in southern China and Bali in Indonesia. Passengers will make about 42 million air trips during the 40-day period, according to China’s Civil Aviation Administration.
For weeks in China, newspapers have published reports about the stress of the holiday. There’s the hassle of obtaining train tickets and anxiety about what gifts to take. For the young unwed, there’ll be inevitable questions about why they haven’t yet married. For those who don’t or can’t return home, there’ll be the guilt they bear for not following through on tradition.
Earlier this month, a Chinese woman in Guangdong province was so distraught with her long-lost son that she purchased a front-page ad in the Chinese Melbourne Daily – a newspaper in Australia, where the son is living – urging him to visit for the holiday.
“We hope you will come home for Lunar New Year,” read the ad, which was reported by the China News Service. “Dad and Mom will never again pressure you to marry.”
Relying on Chinese media for reports about Spring Festival can be tricky. A story Jan. 17 in the China Daily reported that 40 percent of Chinese migrant workers surveyed said they wouldn’t return home for the holiday this year.
Of those who said they wouldn’t return, nearly half said they were embarrassed because they’d earned too little money in the preceding year, according to the survey of 13,156 migrant workers nationwide by a job-hunting site, daguu.com.
It was an astounding finding. Beijing is reportedly home to 8 million migrant workers, more than a third of its population. Most of them are young men from neighboring or far-flung provinces who moved here to take factory or service jobs, often living in squalid and crowded conditions.
The survey’s finding defied efforts to verify it. In the well-known migrant community of Pi Village in northwest Beijing, a 90-minute bus ride from the city center, nearly everyone, it seemed, was traveling or had plans to.
One man estimated that 90 percent of the migrant workers in Pi Village had already left, and many of the remainder would be leaving soon.
This was backed up by a trio of young migrants: Wang Cun Biao, Wang Cun Xin and Wang Cun Bing. All three hailed from the same village in Henan province, and each said he was getting ready to travel there the next day on an eight-hour train ride. Like many in China, they’d stand the whole way, having saved money by getting basic tickets instead of reserving seats.
Only two people a reporter spoke to said they wouldn’t be returning home.
One was Luque Ming, who was shopping with his wife and son in a clothing store along Pi Village’s retail street.
Luque, who works as a groundskeeper at a nearby golf club, moved to the area from Shanxi province only a year ago, but he doesn’t plan to return to his village this year. Both his parents are dead and his immediate family is here, he explained. “There is no reason to go home,” he said.
Luque said he planned to spend Spring Festival eating his favorite foods, watching television and relaxing. “For Spring Festival, we like to buy new clothes for the new year,” he said, adding that Beijing has offered him better job prospects than the rural province where he was born.
The other was a young woman from Sichuan province who said she wasn’t going home because her employer hadn’t paid her. When she was asked for her name and details for a news story, she got nervous and walked away. But there was something believable about what she’d said.
A day earlier, Chinese officials reported that they were working on efforts to help migrants receive the wages they were due, so that they could return home for Spring Festival. Pressure on stingy and unscrupulous bosses had recovered 10.9 billion yuan ($1.8 billion) in unpaid wages for more than 1.5 million workers across the country, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.
In China, there’s a popular song with a line that goes: “No matter if you have money or not, you should return home for Spring Festival.”
It’s a nice sentiment, but for millions of workers here, returning home is contingent on getting paid.