To Keep away from an Outbreak, China Cancels Lunar New Yr for Thousands and thousands of Migrants

Every winter, Pang Qingguo, a fruit seller in northern China, makes the 800-mile trip to his home with his family to celebrate the lunar New Year, the biggest holiday of the year in China.

The coronavirus ruined the festivities last year and left Mr. Pang stranded in the northern city of Tangshan. as many Chinese cities imposed bans. Now that China faces a virus resurgence, the pandemic is set to spoil the vacation again. Authorities are announcing strict quarantine and testing rules to dissuade migrant workers like Mr Pang from traveling for the New Year, which starts this February 12.

Mr. Pang, who calls his home in northeast Heilongjiang Province the “happiest place,” is affected by the rules. In the past few days, he has been using social media to express his frustration with his situation and post photos of his 7 year old daughter that he has not seen in over a year. “Society is so cruel,” he wrote in a post.

“I really miss my daughter,” said 31-year-old Pang in an interview. “But I can’t do anything.”

Many of China’s 300 million or so migrant workers face a similar reality as the government tries to avoid an increase in cases during what is usually the busiest travel season of the year.

Authorities have demanded that people visiting rural areas while on vacation spend two weeks in quarantine and pay for their own coronavirus tests. Many migrants who endure grueling jobs for meager wages in big cities say these restrictions make travel impossible.

The introduction of the rules has generated widespread criticism in China. Many people describe the approach as unfair to migrant workers who have long been treated as second class citizens under China’s strict household registration system. Without this registration, migrant workers cannot access social or medical services in the cities where they work. Workers were among the hardest hit by the pandemic in China as authorities implemented isolated lockdowns to fight the virus and employers reduced working hours and wages.

In a normal year, hundreds of millions of people travel by plane, train, and car to be with their families for the Lunar New Year. The holiday, which usually includes large celebratory banquets and fireworks, is usually the only time many workers can return to their hometown to see loved ones. This year, many are planning to go on vacation alone.

Zhu Xiaomei, who works in a cloth shop in the eastern city of Hangzhou, usually takes a 30-hour train ride to her hometown in southwest Sichuan Province to be with family. This year, for the first time, she will go on vacation alone in her 130-square-meter dormitory, which has no kitchen.

“Of course it’s a little annoying,” said Ms. Zhu, 40 years old. “I’ve never experienced that feeling before.”

For many Chinese families, the holiday will mark a second year in which the pandemic has kept them apart. Just hours before the start of the Lunar New Year last year, authorities imposed sweeping bans and suspended trains and planes across the country. Within hours, more than 35 million people in and around Wuhan City were ordered to stay at home.

Chinese officials fear widespread travel could lead to new outbreaks, especially in rural areas, where testing is less common and there is some resistance to quarantines and other public health measures. While China’s outbreak is relatively under control compared to other countries and life is largely normal in many cities, clusters of new cases have emerged in the past few weeks, leading to sporadic lockdowns and mass testing. China reported 54 new cases on Wednesday, compared with more than 155,000 new cases in the United States on the same day. Chinese officials have vowed to vaccinate 50 million people before the New Year celebrations, but questions remain about the effectiveness of some vaccines made in China.

Authorities still expect hundreds of millions of people to travel during the New Year season, which runs from January to March, despite the threat from the virus. Many of these travelers travel to big cities, not just rural areas. Several major cities have tightened travel restrictions in the past few days. In Beijing, visitors are required to take a negative test for the virus before entering.

In response to migrants’ outrage over the new restrictions, the Chinese government has tried to offer sweeteners such as gift baskets, activities, and shopping discounts to encourage them to stay.

In Shanghai, officials are planning to pay the phone and medical bills of those who choose not to travel home. In Beijing, authorities have encouraged companies to pay overtime while housemaids have been told they will get around $ 60 if they work during vacation. In Tianjin, a city in the north, the government has promised companies subsidies for every worker who stays over the holidays.

Some cities and counties have gone further and promise better access to social benefits like school and health care. Some officials are offering low-cost treatment to rural migrants who waive vacation travel when they apply to stay in cities.

“With these heartwarming measures, let migrant workers stay in their jobs and have the Spring Festival worry-free,” said Chen Yongjia, a Chinese official, at a press conference in Beijing last week hosted by the State Council, China’s cabinet. In China, the New Year holiday is usually called the Spring Festival.

In the run-up to the holidays, the government ran a propaganda campaign to persuade migrant workers not to go home. Large red banners appear on the streets of the city, indicating childlike piety and exemplary behavior on the part of the citizens.

“Mask or ventilator? You choose one of the two, ”reads a banner.

“If you come home with the illness, you will be unfilial,” exclaims another.

“If you pass the disease on to your mother and father, you have no conscience,” reads a third banner.

The Chinese government is trying to avoid a major outbreak that could undermine the country’s economic recovery. Last year’s lockdowns caused China’s economy to contract for the first time in nearly half a century. However, it later recovered when officials ordered state banks to lend and open factories. Earlier this month, China reported that its economy grew 2.3 percent in 2020 and most likely outperformed other large countries, including the US.

Getting people to spend was less effective. Another widespread outbreak would dwarf the pent-up demand for shopping that normally accompanies the New Year holidays.

“What would be really harmful would be if the virus spread so far that more factories and construction sites had to close,” said Arthur Kroeber, managing director of Gavekal Dragonomics, an independent economic research firm.

Mr Kroeber said the authorities did not seem intent on replicating last year’s draconian response.

“You are trying to walk a tightrope,” said Mr Kroeber. It would be “embarrassing” to impose strict rules on gatherings for a second year, he added.

The vacation restrictions have contributed to a difficult time for many migrant workers in China. Many did not work for months last year when the economy stalled due to lockdowns and other restrictions. While wealthier workers in China mostly kept their jobs during the pandemic, many migrants struggled to earn a living while their paychecks and working hours were cut.

Shi Baolian, 47, a chemical plant worker in eastern Suzhou City, said she was looking forward to going home for the vacation to see her father and help him clean his house. But she canceled her plans after a number of cases emerged in her hometown in northern Hebei Province.

Ms. Shi said she would celebrate the holidays with her husband in Suzhou instead. She said the city “doesn’t have a New Year’s atmosphere” and she misses the fireworks and red and gold banners of her hometown.

“I can’t go home so I’ll just go to work,” she said. “After the epidemic is over, we will return.”

Albee Zhang and Cao Li contributed to the research.

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