China tries to halt the world’s biggest human migration

January 14, 2021, 7:46 AM UTC

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For the second year in a row, China’s largest national holiday is under threat from COVID-19.  

The country is currently battling its worst outbreak of COVID-19 since last summer, recording over 1,000 new cases so far this month. Officials have locked down four cities that house roughly 22 million people and carried out mass testing to keep the disease at bay.

Much like last year, the ongoing viral outbreak has hit weeks before millions of people are expected to travel for the Chinese New Year—also known as the Spring Festival—in mid-February. A month ago, Chinese virologists told state media that cautious New Year travel could still be carried out without risking a new surge. But now, with cases rising in the north, local governments are urging residents to stay at home this year instead.

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China recorded 115 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, more than doubling from 55 the day before. The increase marked the country’s biggest one-day jump since June last year. Although it’s small compared with other countries, the surge is particularly worrying for China’s central government in Beijing since most of the new cases have been found in Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, its borders wrapping around the Chinese seat of power.

With the virus spreading close to the nation’s capital, Beijing’s municipal government has urged residents to refrain from travel this New Year.

Chinese Spring Festival
China is preparing to celebrate its biggest national holiday while COVID-19 forces several northern cities into lockdown.
Costfoto/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Chen Bei, vice secretary of the local government, said during a press conference late last month that officials would set an example by staying in Beijing for the holiday. Residents “who absolutely have to leave need to be managed by a strict approval process,” Chen said.

Ordinarily, hundreds of millions of Chinese travel across the country to see their families during the holiday, making a collective 3 billion trips during the 40-day window the government considers “holiday travel.” (The New Year holiday itself is only a week long and starts on Feb. 12 this year.) The travel period, known as chunyun, is typically viewed as the world’s largest human migration.

For China’s massive labor force of migrant workers—those who are born in the countryside but move to cities to work—the New Year is often the only time all year they will return home. However, authorities in China’s major industrial hubs—such as Shenzhen and Guangdong province—are already asking workers to stay put.

Such guidance will deal a blow to China’s travel industry, which has staged a remarkable comeback since China all but eradicated COVID-19 this past summer. With international destinations off-limits, Chinese citizens unleashed pent-up travel demand by booking domestic trips. As of September, the number of air passengers traveling within China in 2020 had equaled the prior year’s total.

Passengers at the train station in Beijing on Jan. 18, 2020.
NOEL CELIS—AFP/Getty Images

Last year, as the country’s nascent COVID-19 outbreak started to spread, China implemented domestic travel restrictions shortly after the festive travel period began, leaving workers stranded in the countryside after they had returned home for the holiday. Without workers, some factories struggled to reopen in late February, and employers are wary of a repeat this year.

On Tuesday China’s state planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), issued a 31-point notice instructing local authorities on how to ensure travel is safe. Directions include staggering factory closure dates so workers don’t all leave at once and implementing contactless ticket checks at train stations.  

Last month, the Ministry of Transport announced it was preparing for the increased passenger flow during the New Year period by enhancing disinfection and temperature screening protocols and adding isolated “quarantine seats” on trains for passengers who fall ill mid-journey.

Meanwhile, some local authorities have banned mass gatherings and implemented quarantine measures for people returning from other provinces, limiting the appeal of traveling for the New Year.

A year after the initial coronavirus outbreak forced China to implement the world’s first COVID-19 lockdown, Beijing is eager to prove that its efforts in combating the virus were worth the sacrifice. The government’s success in keeping the virus at bay over the past year has also earned Beijing bragging rights on the world stage—although world leaders still want Beijing to answer for its initial cover-up of the outbreak.

This year, the NDRC noted in its directive, also marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the China Communist Party—so it is “very important,” the NDRC said, that New Year festivities are handled well.

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