BEIJING: The world's largest annual movement of people officially began yesterday, when millions of Chinese started on their long march home in time for the yearly reunion dinner with their families.
Travellers waiting at Changsha Railway Station in Hunan province yesterday. The world's largest annual movement of people officially began yesterday in China, as hundreds of millions of migrant workers in the cities head back to their rural hometowns for Chinese New Year. -- PHOTO: XINHUA
About 710 million travellers - or about half of China's 1.3 billion people - are expected to crowd the trains, planes, buses and roads over 40 days starting yesterday, as the nation celebrates Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb 3 this year.
In all, a staggering 2.85 billion separate trips will be made, up 11.6 per cent from last year, according to the government.
The annual rush home for the new year - called chunyun - is a unique feature of Chinese society, said Railways Ministry spokesman Wang Yongping. Chinese New Year, or the spring festival, has been celebrated for more than 5,000 years in China, he added: 'No matter how far we have gone or how far we have to travel, this is the time for us to go home to spend a happy, peaceful and auspicious festival with our close ones.'
He said that China's annual reunion crush is as much a result of its huge population, inadequate transport facilities, and uneven economic development, as it is a result of the strong sway of Chinese tradition. The Americans, he noted, do not have as much of a problem heading home for thanksgiving as there are fewer of them and their transport infrastructure is more developed, he told The Straits Times.
The United States is more evenly developed than China, where big gaps in development between the cities and countryside have forced huge numbers of rural workers to move from poorer western areas to the prosperous coastal areas.
China's 230 million rural migrant workers make up a large chunk of the crowds going home for the spring festival, especially from first-tier cities Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, whose strong economies attract many workers.
Combined with the millions of university students going home on winter vacation, every chunyun puts the country's transport system through its most severe test each year. It makes for overnight queues, overcrowded trains and overheated tempers - all common scenes at this time of year.
At the Beijing South Railway Station yesterday, a man upset about not getting a ticket ended up in a shouting match with a ticket seller for a few minutes, before he was pulled away by security guards.
'Have you bought your ticket?' was the common greeting around the ticketing area, as people shuffled anxiously in numerous lines.
Mr Wang Yongqing, 39, a hawker selling sundry items in Beijing, was all smiles after he snagged a ticket for a 16-hour train ride back to his native Heilongjiang province in the north-east.
'You have to buy early, or you won't be able to get a ticket,' he said, having queued overnight for his annual trip home to see his wife and son.
The railway authorities have promised more trains, ticket booths and staff to cope with the record 230 million train trips that are expected to be made. At the Beijing South station, for instance, tea ladies could be seen standing by with thermos flasks offering hot drinks, and student helpers held signboards urging passengers to queue up.
But the Railways Ministry, which had previously promised to meet demand for spring festival travel by last year, has now conceded that it will only be able to do so in 2015.
Ministry spokesman Wang said that while transport capacity needs to be increased, closing the gap in China's development would be more effective in the long run.
'When our backward areas become developed and the gap closes between city and countryside, the movement of people will no longer result in the seasonal phenomenon that is chunyun,' he said.