It's like this every year. Chinese New Year is the most important holiday on the calendar. It's also when the entire country goes on vacation at the exact same time. This is when families from far-flung regions gather together to eat, drink, and give out the ubiquitous hong bao. Even as China goes through its own growing pains, the New Year seems to be a running thread of traditionalism in a time of modernization.
Just how big is the world's largest migration? This Lunar New Year period, roughly taking place between January 12 and February 21, will see 2.98 billion trips taken. This astronomical number is 2.2% higher than last year. With the economy starting to struggle, however, Pudong Airport isn't as packed as usual. That said, analysts estimate approximately 6 million international flights during this period, even though tickets are notoriously expensive.
This is not the story of vacationers to the left and right of me, though. Those wealthy enough to afford a plane ticket out only make up a small percentage of travelers. Most trips will be taken by the country's 277.5 million migrant workers. This is likely the only time of year where they'll be able to return to their home provinces. For some, it's also the only time they'll see their children all year. China is home to nearly 70 million left-behind children, a moniker for those whose parents have gone to cities to find work. They leave the children in the care of a grandparent or other guardian, largely absent except during this precious time of the year.
While a joyous time, heart-breaking stories play out in train stations throughout the country. A full 85% of travelers will opt to take a seat on one of China's trains. That means getting a seat is not only a premium, but a desperate situation for many. CNN reported earlier this week train tickets selling at 1,000 per second! Some will be able to grab high-speed rail tickets for trains that dart across the country's ever-increasing network. Others will be left with trains that are slow, unheated, and have wooden slats for seats. The unlucky will be left to board buses, crammed with bunk beds to accommodate the rush of people. The unfortunate will be left behind.
Even as China continues to invest nearly half of its GDP into capital infrastructure projects, this is no match for the sheer volume of travel during Chinese New Year. Some analysts argue, though, that we are seeing peak migration. The growth over the past several years, with each Lunar New Year topping its predecessor, may become a thing of the past. More and more, migrant workers are going back home and staying. Instead of coming back to the country's urban centers, like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing, people are choosing to take up work in regional and provincial centers. While urbanization will certainly continue, this will play out away from China's eastern megacities. Skyrocketing costs of living, and fewer low-skill jobs, mean the land of opportunity is quickly moving west.
For now, I sit down and prep myself for a long-haul flight. People shove gift boxes of fruit into overhead compartments, while flight attendants corral children to their seats. Looking around, I'm reminded that I too am a migrant worker. Sure, I work in an office and not a building site, but to most Chinese I'm an outsider all the same. Today, though, I feel like part of the club as we all do our part contributing to this titanic movement of human beings.