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MERICS China Mapping

China on the move: The world’s largest human migration at Chinese New Year

Over the course of these days, hundreds of millions of Chinese are on the move. They are travelling to celebrate the Chinese New Year (called the “Spring Festival”, 春节chunjie) with their families - back in their home provinces, or sightseeing within China or abroad. Comparable to Christmas in Germany, this is the most important festival of the year in China. Consequently, what happens at this occasion is often termed the “largest annual human mass migration on earth today”. According to the lunar calendar, the first day of the upcoming Year of the Horse will be celebrated on January 31st.

The journey home is far

Around this date there will be three public holidays. On average, Chinese employees are only entitled to take five to ten days of paid annual leave. Spring festival is thus one of the only two instances a year that Chinese workers enjoy a period of coherent holidays, called a “Golden Week” (黄金周huangjinzhou). So as to make the most of this rare occasion and to acquire additional time off, most Chinese even work extra hours at the weekend before New Year.

Not least, it takes some time to travel from most people’s workplaces, which are usually located in one of the metropolises or industrialized provinces on China’s developed east and south coast far into the Chinese mainland to their home towns and villages (see the ten main routes on the info map above). These trips often involve multiple stops and different means of travel.

A challenge for China's public transportation systems

The so called “Spring Transport” (春运 chunyun), which will last for about 40 days , already started on January 16th this year. The peak of travel activities can be expected on the days before and after New Year’s Eve. All over the country, train stations will be overcrowded, bus stations turn into campsites and airports will be full to the brim. Extra trains, flights and busses have to be deployed – a real challenge for China’s transportation system. Moreover, Chinese authorities recently announced to estimate 3.6 billion People to be on the move this year. There is no doubt that this number is inflated, because, for example, one person buying three tickets for different means of travel is counted threefold. Nevertheless, the Chinese government uses these statistics to point to the colossal complexities that transport authorities have to deal with and tries to appease travellers’ anger over chaotic ticket sales and poor transport connections.

Online trade with tickets is booming

Most tickets in China are now traded online. For instance, the China Railway Corporation reported having sold more than 156 million train tickets through its website within three weeks since the end of December. Due to the massive demand these portals often break down or are abused by black market vendors. Furthermore, these systems particularly put China’s so called “migrant workers” (estimated to represent about 250 million people) at a disadvantage. Being probably the ones who most dearly depend on the spring holidays for a family reunion, they often do not have internet access or cannot use online vending systems as most of them don't have credit cards. In some major cities, at least, volunteers now offer to help them with online ticket purchases.   


Xinhua: "China Focus: Transport system to be fully stretched for 'Chunyun'"

Baidu: "2013年春节黄金周旅游统计报告"

  • Stiftung Mercator