Travel for the Lunar New Year holiday to China, the world’s largest annual human migration, has been reduced to a trickle this year after the government asked citizens to stay put to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading.
Mass tests, quarantines and contact tracing have largely stifled the transmission of Covid-19 in China since March, allowing the economy to stage a fast recovery.
But the government, determined to guard against epidemics, even on a small scale, wants to minimize long-distance travel during the biggest vacation of the year. The Chinese State Council has encouraged people, even in low-risk areas, to celebrate the New Year, which begins on February 12, where they live and work, rather than doing what’s for many pilgrimage once a year return to ancestral property.
The Department of Transportation estimates that travelers will only make about 1.15 billion trips this year, up from about 3 billion in 2019 during the peak period that officially began on Thursday.
Measures to discourage movement included cash giveaways, additional gigabytes on the go, and free entry to local tourist attractions. Employers also warned workers that leaving the city would be frowned upon, while some local authorities have barred foreigners from entering.
April Wang, who works in Beijing, didn’t think she would be able to make the hour-long high-speed train ride to her hometown after her supervisor said only “extremely special reasons” could justify the trip. Not being able to return home every time there was a coronavirus outbreak led her to consider leaving the capital for good.
Beijing, which is expected to host a gathering of key Chinese leaders at its annual legislative meeting in March, has consistently adopted some of the strictest measures. The city on Wednesday tightened entry requirements so that even travelers from low-risk areas need a negative Covid-19 test within seven days to enter.
Authorities were scared in recent weeks, by clusters of locally transmitted Covid-19 cases in the northeastern provinces of Hebei, Heilongjiang and Jilin, which represented the highest daily number of cases for more than six months.
Efforts to discourage travel have mainly focused on the estimated “floating population” of 300 million internal migrants who in many cases work on contract, with an assumed annual break during holidays.
The delivery company STO Express offered cash bonuses of around 2,500 Rmb ($ 386) to couriers who work during the holidays. An employee surnamed Deng who works for the company in Beijing said it was the first year he hadn’t spent the holidays to return to his hometown in central Shanxi Province. “It’s too complicated to be quarantined and to do the tests. Once I am quarantined, I have no more income, ”he says.
Wealthy cities in southern China, including Suzhou and Ningbo, offer migrant workers additional points needed to apply for an urban residence permit. Under china hukou system internal passports, having a local permit gives additional access to education, health care and housing.
Chinese state media applauded the efforts and encouraged people to make a personal sacrifice for the good of the nation. China Youth Daily, the newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party’s youth organization, said a survey of 2,025 people found that 85.4 percent of people said they planned not to travel during the holidays, while 96.8% “agreed that staying put for the New Year was a contribution to epidemic prevention work.”
Additional reporting by Qianer Liu in Shenzhen and Emma Zhou and Xinning Liu in Beijing
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