This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on January 25, 2021 and can be accessed here.
It’s that time of the year when the largest human migration usually happens. Chunyun is a travel period of forty days around the Spring Festival. In normal years, chunyun would see about 3 billion trips by Chinese migrants who return home. These are not normal years, though.
With a spike of cases in North China, in the Hebei, Heilongjiang provinces, the Chinese government is pushing for people to stay at home rather than travel. Last week, they passed a new policy that requires people who travel to rural areas to provide a negative COVID-19 test within seven days before departure, followed by 14 days of home quarantine after they reach. This may seem standard for travel between countries and even appropriate considering that rural areas do not have the capacity to deal with large outbreaks. It is facing backlash from people who believe that this disproportionately affects Chinese migrants. Only a few cities offer free testing, and the cost of a nucleic acid test (around Rs 1000) is still costly for Chinese migrants, many of whom work blue-collar jobs.
The Chinese Communist Party is not alone in pushing for the policy. All of China's provinces have also advised people to stay put during the holiday period. Local governments are also incentivising people against travelling. The South China Morning Post reported of a factory town "offering shopping vouchers, free entry to tourist spots, movie tickets, food, and new year decorations to entice them [migrants] not to travel to be with families." The government is also urging companies to incentivise employees to stay put. Companies like CATL (China's biggest producer of batteries for electric cars) offer up to 13,100 yuan (more than a lakh rupees) if employees give up their holiday this year to work instead.
The number of people travelling for Chunyan is expected to go down 40 percent. Still, it is unclear what impact this will have on the economy. Chinese airlines, who have already faced a challenging year, were expecting to recover profits during this peak travel season. Usually, flights are booked out well in advance. But, this year, airline companies continue to offer low prices for air tickets.
The Chinese government's moves are not as drastic as they seem. When the national lockdown was announced in India last year, India's millions of migrant workers had nowhere to turn to when transportation systems abruptly shut down. Many of them walked thousands of km, often without food or water, to go back to their villages.
According to an article in the EPW, "With meagre savings, the lockdown of the economy drying up income sources and means to survive, migrant workers were in no way equipped to brace the lockdown or to practice social distancing." These steps eventually taken by various states in organising special trains and shelters for migrants were too little, too late. We yet do not know what the full scale of impact for India's migrant workers. This cautionary tale serves as an important lesson for other countries, including China, to keep the most vulnerable people at the centre of policies.