Being part of the world’s largest human annual migration

Our family recently returned to Shanghai from our Chinese New Year travel to Guangzhou.  For my readers unfamiliar with this it will seem like a non-event worthy of blogging about.  For my Chinese readers you know about the significance of this and hopefully will find a western perspective of this annual event entertaining.  Chinese New Year is a special time for the gathering of family and reuniting of friends and ones across China.  During this time millions of people move across our planet, from withing China to returning to China from abroad.  This discussion is only covering the migration inside of China, as adding those from outside only adds to the shere volume you see in the interior.
Chinese New Year is an annual event which is based off of the ancient Chinese lunar calendars and this year marks the year 4707, well ahead of our 2009 year.  The lunar New Year activates are much longer then just a week but officially they are public holidays here for only 3 days with most large and many mid sized businesses taking an additional 2 days or more off with shifted weekends, leaves, or vacations taken.  During the week schools, businesses, and government agencies are all shut down to celebrate and allow their employees to take time off, and for many travel.  Due to the lunar nature of the holiday its time shifts on our, the West’s, Gregorian calendars so planning and getting things ready is always a challange.  The most fascinating part of all of this, besides the most obvious cultural and historic aspects, is that it marks the largest annual human migration on the planet, and has for many generations.
This past week’s celebrations saw my family join in with over 188 million others in a day of travel most Western minds can not fully fathom.  We live and work in Shanghai, China’s second most populous city just behind Beijing and one of China’s top 3 destinations for migrant workers.  Coco is from Guangzhou and that is where her parents live and where we travel to, more on why we do thins later on.  Guangzhou is the largest city in Guangdong province where the vast majority of China’s manufacturing is located, even with the recent closure of 670,000 factories and mid sized businesses this past year in the province, according to the ministry of human resources and social security, making it the most traveled out of location in China – and that is where we were traveling into. 
On January 27th the ministry of transportation in Beijing stated over 5 million people traveled by train there on that one day alone!  All of Guangdong saw a mass exodus of 6.3 million people on that day selling out of all the train tickets within hours of their being made available according to Chinese media CCTV.  They also reported a week of 4 million daily flights, a week!  By the time of New Year’s eve 24 million air flight tickets had been sold, we used 3 of these as ours were round trip tickets.  Moving 188 million people in a week’s time is unbelievable.  Imagine 60% of the US abandoning half the country for the other half and doing it in less then 7 days time.
Last year was a major disaster due to the snow that stranded thousands of trains across the country, the main avenue of transportation as airports are few and cars are mostly in the cities only.  Due to this and the economic crisis many workers began their annual journeys a little ahead of schedule this year, but still, a few hundred thousand is nothing compared to 188 million people.  I can hear one question beginning to rise from most people now, why?  Well to explain the insanity of this annual ritual you will need some background information.
China relies on huge numbers of migrant workers to fuel its three decade long development projects that just keep expanding and growing.  Labor in China is cheap.  How cheap, well according to the economics department at Minzu University here migrant workers make an average of $1,170 per year, working on farms in their home provinces only earns them $700 per year by comparison.  The cost of this pay doubling, you have to move away for 11 or more months per year.  The People’s Bank of China states 65% of annual rural income is provided by these migrant workers.  One year’s work, pay, and sacrifices are only eased by this one annual holiday lasting for one to two weeks.  Migrant workers are required to live in company provided barracks, dorms, etc. and they save as much as possible living out minimalist existences to send as much of their annual pay home every year as possible.
I can hear a second question forming.  If the pay and all this moving around is so bad then why not just move to where the work is, like to Guangzhou for instance.  Well, hukou.  Hukou is an ancient way of accounting for and regulating the provincial populations within China, since the Xia Dynasty, 2100-1600 B.C.  During the cultural revolution it was used by the communist government as a way to control and maintain order over the vast population within China.  It is a very complex and layered topic but simply put in a western definition it is the practice of keeping a count of people within a province and relegating them to maintain in that province by denying them access to basic social and economic services through special incentives and bureaucratic procedures making it hard to move.  My wife was born in Guangdong province, in the city of Guangzhou.  Her company had to get permission to employ her in Shanghai.  We could not marry in Shanghai and her medical coverage in the city is that of a foreign resident, which is not good.  We had to get married in Guangzhou, her social pension fund is only accessible if she is living in the province, and our daughter, who was also born in Guangzhou but is an American citizen, has to go to private schools here as only Shanghai residents can attend Shanghai public schools.
This sounds insane, well my wife can switch her residence if she wants, but here is the catch.  Her taxes will dramatically increase if she does, Guangzhou’s tax base if much less then Shanghai’s.  Her pension fund will have to start over, she will forfeit her existing pension fund if she moves and this is only allowed because of her education level, MBA holder, and meeting minimum wage requirements.  The benefit, she gets a Shanghai residency card, we can buy property in the inner and second ring regions, and she can conduct government business needs here (thing thinks like marriage, taxes, legal activities, business licenses, etc.).  So because of the current hukou regulations migrant workers, mostly poor barely educated and mostly unaware of their rights and rules governing them, are forced into an existence of working in one city for 11 plus months out of the year and only returning home for Chinese New Year to bring home pay, presents, and enjoy a few days time with their children, spouses, and parents in the town they grew up in.
Because of this Chinese New Year is very important and people will do anything to get home as quickly as possible to spend as much time with family and friends before going off for another 11 plus months of work again.  Add this to the traditional meaning of the year and all the events of the holiday and you get a perfect scenario for a most special homecoming that is best described as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years all wrapped into one crazy week, all bracketed with a few nightmare days of travel of coming and going.
I have read you can not fully appreciate the China experience until you travel during this time on a train.  Well, I have traveled on the trains here, in the past known as the iron rooster, and I can attest is brings you to a completely different place inside China.  I have taken trains from Shanghai to Xian, Beijing and Guangzhou (all very long), Suzhou to Nanjing (medium trips), and Guangzhou to Hong Kong (a very short trip) and can attest to the uniqueness you can only get via a train ride, and the cramped quarters that make my Navy days seem like living at a Hilton.  Flying is a hassle here as it is anywhere now but taking a train is something you try for the novelty or do because you really have no other option.  Getting in and out of the train stations is a nightmare and overcrowding and lack of common courtesies and politeness are the norm as combat is required to keep alive and get a seat.

So now that all the background is out of the way, knowing why it involves the largest movement of people on the planet and the how it is done, how is it to experience it?  After 4 years I can say it is like holiday travel anywhere.  Crowded, short tempers by travelers and transportation staff alike, lack of goods and services at terminals and stores close by, you will lose something, and the great sense of relief when you finally get going and you then the largest when you get to where it is you are going.  Chinese people are in a hurry when it comes to travel.  In a country with a billion and a half people competition for anything is always fierce.  Travel is travel and holiday travel is holiday travel.  Crying kids, smelly seat mates, boring old movies or last weeks newspapers and magazines to read (if you really want to touch them), and tired and haggard crews trying to get through another day of doing their jobs and taking abuses from ill tempered and frustrated travelers and their issues with eachother.

Participating in the world’s largest human migration is an experience you have to see from afar to really appreciate because from up close it is best described as trying to see the forest when standing in a grove of trees.  Watching the news, reading the articles, seeing the statistics is all surreal when you stop to think about what it is you just were part of.  I would measure it with the experience of being in a sellout crowd at a sporting event or concert.  You are there with all there people but it is not until you get away from it all that you really realize what it is that you have just been through.  Being 1 person in a mass of 188 million is too much to process when you look at it.  It is something that is truly special when you think about it and something that is amazing to be part of and makes the holiday season and time with family and friends all that much more special.  The experience really does bring people closer together, not only strangers but families because the ordeal of getting there makes being there that much more special.
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One Response to Being part of the world’s largest human annual migration

  1. Sarah says:

    MY gosh… I don\’t think most of us American\’s could even fathom not being able to buy property in a state just because we wern\’t born there, or have medical, or pensions, or etc, or having to get special permission to move there. Does it seem to be a good working thing though for the government? I guess it\’s a way to control the population, and make sure it\’s not leaving some areas bare? How is it Sophia is an American citizen if she was born in China? That part confuses me. I thought you were a citizen of where you were born. I guess China is different. Are you planing on staying a US citizen? When I read your posts, I find myself wondering if the benifits of being one (able to travel more freely to and from the states) outweighs the problems that your wife has with her having to have all of her pension and such limited to one area.

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