A month ago China was gearing up for a relatively normal Lunar New Year celebration. Restaurants and shops were taking on extra staff in preparation for the holiday surge and transport companies were bracing themselves for the usual annual migratory crush.
The exodus would have been a glowing endorsement of China’s containment of Covid-19 infections – hundreds of millions of people on the move to reunite with their families potentially offered a striking contrast to how Christmas was subject to restrictions on merrymaking in many other nations.
Yet plans for a typical Spring Festival have been torpedoed in many provinces as well as the capital city of Beijing, after a series of sudden and sizeable virus outbreaks.
Twenty-five provinces and autonomous regions in China are introducing restrictions discouraging people from travelling over the break, with 14 cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Shenzhen, imposing similar rules.
Predictions for just how many people will still journey to their home towns are varied but the NDRC – China’s top state planning agency – is forecasting that the number of travellers will be “significantly lower than normal” and that road and rail networks networks should be prepared for closure if the outbreaks worsen.
“Put epidemic prevention and control into first place,” the agency instructed, reminding transport providers that 2021 is the centenary of the founding of China’s Communist Party “so it is very important to do well” in this anniversary year.
The new outbreaks are a blow to the central government as a nearly- normal Chinese New Year would have been a vindication of its Covid management strategy (after a disastrous start in Wuhan). Happy celebrations with extended family would also have helped to compensate for some of the harsher directives many Chinese had to live under at the beginning of the outbreak just over a year ago. An unrestricted Chinese New Year would also have been a further boost to the economy – thanks to the surge in consumer spending that normally results from travel and tourism over the Spring Festival holiday period.
Instead, at least 22 million Chinese have been plunged back into partial lockdown, with do-not-leave-home restrictions in three major cities in Hebei. Residents of Beijing have been warned that they will also have to provide a negative Covid test if they want to return to the capital after visits to places categorised as medium or high-risk areas for the virus.
To make sure residents comply with these “recommendations”, employers have been instructed to issue their own instructions to workers not to travel to other provinces unless the trip is an essential one.
“It is being framed as a recommendation but we all know we have to comply,” noted one young woman working in Beijing.
Even those fortunate enough to live in the same province or city as their family members now face restrictions on their freedom of movement, as the State Council has stipulated that no family gathering should be greater than 10 people.
“For people who have worked hard all year, away from their family, our annual trip home is a necessity. Couldn’t they let us go home in batches?” asked one heartbroken Sina Weibo user.
“Homesickness and love for our families are engraved on our hearts. Not going home for New Year is extremely hard to bear,” another lamented.
Acknowledging the importance of the Lunar New Year celebrations, the state media has been doing its best to dilute the public’s disappointment.“Returning home for Spring Festival is a deep Chinese tradition, which nourishes people with family love,” Xinhua recognised. But to make staying in one’s city of work over the holiday more appealing, it called on other provinces to follow the example of Zhejiang, which is arranging local activities and outings for stranded workers.
Xinhua also recognised how hard it would be for elderly relatives and ‘left-behind’ children not to see their family members because of new rules preventing travel between China’s employment hubs and more rural areas. But there was a greater good in staying at home. “The situation is severe and reducing the flow of people can control the epidemic. By not travelling we can care for our own families and the wider population,” Xinhua advised.
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