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The ‘Chunyun’: The largest annual migration on the planet becomes an economic barometer for China

Beijing expects nine billion trips to be made during the travel season surrounding Chinese New Year travel, triple the number that was registered before the pandemic

Turismo chino
Travelers in the Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport.reuters

It’s Wednesday at noon. In Beijing, the subway line that runs through the center-south of the city is busier than on other days at this same time. Many passengers are loaded down with suitcases and bags. When they reach the end of the journey — the Beijing West Railway Station — dozens of people and children rush towards the main entrance. One of them is Guo (pseudonym), a man who is over 50-years-old. He wears an ushanka — a Russian-style hat — to protect himself from the cold. He carries a black backpack and is tugging a gigantic suitcase.

He doesn’t give EL PAÍS his real name, but he tells this newspaper that he’s returning to Baotou, his hometown in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, in the north. It’s the first time in four years that he’ll be able to celebrate Chinese New Year with his family. While he’s visited them more than once over the past few years, it was never around this time. “Last year, it was very dangerous to return [during the holidays]. There were a lot of infections in the big cities… I didn’t want to risk it,” he explains.

Like Guo, millions of migrant workers return to their roots during the 40 days of Chunyun, the Chinese New Year (also known as the Spring Festival). This travel season is the largest annual human migration on the planet. And, for the Year of the Dragon — which begins on February 10 — the authorities expect all records to be broken.

Between January 26 and March 6 of 2024, around nine billion trips will be made, according to the Ministry of Transportation. This figure is triple what it was in 2019, before the pandemic (2.98 billion trips). Last year — when China was facing its worst wave of Covid-19 — nearly 1.6 billion trips were counted, the highest figure since the pandemic began. The forecasted exponential increase is due to the fact that the statistics now include “the volume of passenger cars by road, both on national and provincial highways,” according to Beijing.

Chunyun is mainly a mass movement back home for those who live abroad, although it can also involve days of rest and tourism. Children get a month of vacation, university students see their families again, and millions of workers who reside in other provinces close up shop and head back to their roots. For many, it will be the only time all year that they’ll be able to take a holiday. Of the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens, almost 300 million work as migrant workers, moving from the countryside to urban areas seeking opportunity. It’s estimated that around a third of the residents of Beijing — which has 22 million inhabitants in total — are technically migrant workers. They don’t have the hukou (household registration) of the capital — a document imposed by China’s population system, which is linked to a person’s origins.

The travel frenzy can be taken as a barometer of the country’s economy, employment rate and level of consumption. If there’s a lot of movement, it implies that people are working, have money and want to return home. However, while Chinese finances have recovered from the ravages of the pandemic (GDP grew by 5.2% in 2023), the ghosts of a recession in the real estate market have undermined the confidence of households. Spending hasn’t reached the levels that were expected after the reopening following the pandemic lockdowns. This past week, the Hong Kong justice system decreed the liquidation of the Evergrande Group, which was the largest housing developer in China. It ultimately became the most indebted in the world.

In any case, expectations for the ongoing holiday season are high. In 2023, the restaurant and hospitality sector soared by 14.5% compared to the previous year, one of the largest increases in recent decades (although much of it was due to the very low statistical base of the lagging pandemic in 2022). Still, there are positive indicators in 2024. Compared to 2019, Air China has opened 32% more air routes, while hotel and group travel bookings through the Fliggy Agency (China’s online travel agency) have soared by 160% and 34%, respectively. The Ministry of Transportation expects 480 million trips by train, 80 million by plane and 7.2 billion by car. On the first day of Chunyun alone, 189 million trips were made throughout the nation — 19.7% more than in 2023 — according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

At the West Station, the lines move quickly, under the supervision of security guards. At the door, a man from Shaanxi guards his travel bags and those of another couple. “We’re trying to get a ticket. We hope someone cancels and we can travel today,” he explains. “This year, there are more people and it’s more difficult.”

Liu Qing, a 37-year-old teacher living in the capital, writes via WeChat that she will travel on Chinese New Year’s Eve, because it’s been impossible for her to get a ticket before that date to return to her city, Taiyuan. It’s expected that most officials and company employees will travel on that day.

Many of the trips coincide with school holidays and the eternal dilemma of working parents: what to do with the children. Bai Jie — a 36-year-old doctor — has just arrived in Sanya with her daughter, who is currently running around the beach of Hainan, a tropical island in the South China Sea. She will leave her for several weeks in the care of her grandparents — now retired — who bought an apartment by the sea in this tourist city 10 years ago. She and her daughter used to spend the winter months here, until Covid arrived. “It’s the first year that we returned after the pandemic,” the family tells EL PAÍS, in the shade of some palm trees. Bai Jie will soon return to the cold province of Shanxi, because she and her husband have to continue working.

Many take advantage of Chinese New Year to take a few days of rest. “Working all the time makes you sad,” says Xia Tian, 41, a guy who spent six years working in Africa. In 2023, after the post-pandemic reopening, he opened a restaurant in Henan province. During his interview with EL PAÍS, he smokes a cigarette, sitting on a blanket on the sand. Behind him, boats drag giant duck-shaped floats. He likes the place: he goes for walks, rides a jet ski. He feels good about the economy. “The money is there. The question is whether [people are] willing to spend it.” There’s the hustle and bustle of the beach all around him. But Ding Daquan — a 74-year-old retiree, who also has an apartment facing the sea — assures this newspaper that there are still “far fewer people” than before the public health crisis.

Vincent Chan — a China strategist at Aletheia Capital, a Hong Kong-based financial firm — is quite convinced that this year will be “good” in terms of tourism. Especially compared to the past, when restrictions had already been lifted, but infections still spread throughout the country. Travel, in any case, doesn’t entirely indicate an improvement in confidence in the economy. “The big question is about other types of consumption, like buying cars,” he notes. Vehicles represent a big piece of the retail sales pie. “That’s a different decision than buying a plane ticket,” he adds. “Buying a car is [an act of] large-scale discretionary consumption.” And, at the moment, car sales “aren’t that strong.” In 2024, Chan concludes, we’ll have to be attentive as to whether the Chinese economy shows “genuine signs” that it’s beginning to recover, particularly in areas linked to “domestic confidence,” such as large-scale consumption and the battered real estate market.

For now, concerns about the housing crisis seem to have taken a backseat among Chinese travelers. Huang Ning — a 27-year-old Beijing native — plans to break away from family commitments as soon as possible to go surfing in the Philippines during the week-long vacation. On Wednesday, at the capital’s station, four students from Xinjiang University tell EL PAÍS that they’ve spent a few days visiting the capital. “It’s the first time since we started our degree that we’ve been able to take a trip with friends — we wanted to take advantage of it while our parents are working. Now, we’re apart until we resume classes in mid-February,” one of them sighs, before leaving for her native Wuhan.

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