China Braces for New Year Travel Rush

The Chinese New Year sees hundreds of millions return to their hometowns, placing an enormous strain on transport networks that are frequently already stretched. Many will take home partners to meet the parents, but the others’ significance is not always what it seems; and the trip poses particular challenges to poor economic migrants, even as more and more families are separated by work.

MSNBC’s Behind The Wall blog describes the scale of the migration:

It’s as if the entire population of the United States took to the road several times over. During China’s “chunyun” or Spring Festival travel season, the 40-day period that began earlier this month, more than 3.2 billion passenger-trips will tax the country’s transportation system in what is thought to be the world’s largest human migration ever ….

About a quarter billion travelers will load onto China’s over-burdened rail network. Despite a new online ticketing system and hotlines, many have complained of difficulties and delays in buying train tickets. Still, for many Chinese, the ticketing problems and prospect of long ride in crowded condition are small price to pay for the once-in-a-year family reunions.

The accompanying video report describes frustration at a train booking site overwhelmed by over a billion hits per day in early January:

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Online ticket sales have also plucked the increasingly raw nerve of China’s deepening economic inequality. Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz reports from Shanghai, where he attracted an agitated crowd of would-be travellers:

… They’re mad it’s becoming more difficult to buy tickets. This year the government thought it would make buying train tickets easier by making tickets available online. Bad idea.

… Because there are hundreds of millions of people in China, like these guys, who live on less than a few dollars a day. They just don’t have the means or the know-how to hope online and buy tickets. Here’s some tape from one man I spoke to about this, Zhang Weishang …. Zhang’s simply saying it’s not fair. He’s poor and uneducated and he has no access to a computer, much less the internet. As he’s telling me this, a swelling crowd of people watch us and start chiming in-so many people that the police finally are called in.

… [W]hat’s clear is it’s a bigger issue than just train tickets. It’s a reminder that the wealth gap is widening in China. And this train ticket fiasco really hits a chord because train travel has always been within the means of many working migrants in China. Now you’ve got these luxurious bullet trains, online ticketing — it’s becoming a system that favors the rich.

For some, impatient parents are a greater problem than lack of money. The Guardian’s Tania Branigan explains one way for single Chinese to deflect family pressure to get married:

Taking a boyfriend or girlfriend home is a fast way to curb the speculation, which is why Li, like other twentysomethings, has hired a fake partner through an online agency ….

Li will pay him between 500 and 700 yuan (£51-£72) a day – they are still haggling – to accompany her from Beijing to Hunan to meet her parents.

“I don’t need him to stay long, just one night, New Year’s Eve, and he can just say work is busy and he has to go back the next day, like [the guy I hired] last year,” she said.

She is keeping the meeting deliberately short to prevent her parents learning too much about him. Although she has vetted him over a coffee, she does not really know him and worries he might turn out to be a thief and steal from her home.

See a photo and video montage of the long journey home for many in China, by Jordan Pouille and Lei Yang: