“I really miss my daughter,” the 31-year-old said in an interview. “But there’s nothing I can do.”
Many of China’s roughly 300 million migrant workers face a similar reality as the government tries to avoid a surge in cases during what is typically the busiest travel season of the year.
Authorities have demanded that people visiting rural areas during the holiday spend two weeks in quarantine and pay for their own coronavirus tests. Many workers, who endure gruelling jobs for meager wages in big cities, say those restrictions make it impossible to travel.
The rollout of the rules has drawn widespread criticism in China. Many people are calling the approach unfair to domestic migrant workers, who have long been treated as second-class citizens under China’s strict household registration system.
Without that registration, migrant labourers cannot access social or medical services in the cities where they work. They have been among the hardest hit in China by the pandemic, as authorities have carried out scattered lockdowns to fight the virus and employers have reduced hours and pay.
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 typically includes big festive banquets and fireworks, is normally the only time many workers can return to their home towns to see loved ones. This year, many are making plans to spend the holiday alone.
Zhu Xiaomei, who works at a fabric store in the eastern city of Hangzhou, typically makes the 30-hour journey by train to her home town in the south-western province of Sichuan to be with family. This year she will spend the holiday alone for the first time, inside her 12-square-metre dormitory, which lacks a kitchen.
“Of course it is a bit upsetting,” Zhu, 40, said. “I have never experienced this feeling.“
For many Chinese families the holiday will represent a second year that the pandemic has kept them apart. Just hours before the start of the Lunar New Year last year, the authorities imposed sweeping lockdowns and suspended trains and planes across the country. In a matter of hours, more than 35 million people in the city of Wuhan and the surrounding areas were ordered to stay at home.
Chinese officials are concerned that widespread travel could give rise to fresh outbreaks, especially in rural areas, where testing is less common and there has been some resistance to quarantines and other public health measures.
While China’s outbreak is relatively under control compared with other countries and life is largely normal in many cities, clusters of new cases have emerged in recent weeks, prompting sporadic lockdowns and mass testing efforts.
China reported 54 new cases on Wednesday and 52 on Thursday, 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 Lunar New Year, but questions remain about the efficacy of some Chinese-made vaccines.
Authorities still expect hundreds of millions to travel this Lunar season, which lasts until March, despite the threat posed by the virus. Many of those travellers are going to large cities, not just rural areas. Several major cities in recent days have tightened restrictions on travel. Beijing is requiring visitors to test negative for the virus before being granted entry.
The Chinese government, in response to the migrants’ outrage over the new restrictions, has tried to offer sweeteners — including gift baskets, activities and shopping discounts — to encourage them to stay put.
In Shanghai, officials plan to pay the phone and medical bills of those who forgo their journeys home. In Beijing, the authorities have encouraged companies to pay employees overtime, while house maids have been told they will receive about $US60 ($78) if they work during the holidays. In Tianjin, a northern city, the government has promised subsidies to businesses for every worker who stays.
Some cities and counties have gone further, promising a better shot at accessing social benefits such as schooling and healthcare. Some officials are offering rural migrants who forgo holiday travel favourable treatment in applications for residency in cities.
“Through these heart-warming measures, let migrant workers stay in their place of employment and spend the Spring Festival without worries,” Chen Yongjia, a Chinese official, said last week at a news conference in Beijing hosted by the State Council, China’s cabinet. In China, the Lunar New Year holiday is typically referred to as the Spring Festival.
In the run-up to the holiday, the government has led a propaganda campaign aimed at persuading migrant workers to avoid travelling home. Large red banners invoking filial piety and model citizen behaviour have started to appear on city streets.
“Mask or a ventilator? You pick one of the two,” one banner reads.
“If you come home with the disease, you are unfilial,” another exclaims.
“If you spread the disease to your mother and father, then you are utterly devoid of a conscience,” a third banner reads.
Last year’s lockdowns tipped China’s economy into its first contraction in nearly a half-century, but it later bounced back as officials ordered its state-run banks to lend and factories to open. Earlier this month, China reported that its economy grew 2.3 per cent in 2020, most likely outpacing other large countries, including the United States.
Getting people to spend money has been less effective. Another widespread outbreak would cast a pall on any pent-up demand for shopping that usually accompanies the Lunar New Year holiday.
“What would be really damaging is if the virus spread enough to have to shut down more factories and construction sites,” said Arthur Kroeber, managing director of Gavekal Dragonomics, an independent economic research firm.
Kroeber said the authorities did not seem eager for a repeat of last year’s draconian response.
“They are trying to walk a tightrope,” Kroeber said. To impose harsh rules on gatherings for a second year “would be embarrassing”, he added.
The holiday restrictions have added to a difficult time for many migrant workers in China. Many did not work for months last year as the economy came to a standstill amid lockdowns and other restrictions. While wealthier workers in China largely kept their jobs during the pandemic, many migrants struggled to make a living amid cuts to their wages and hours.
Shi Baolian, 47, a worker at a chemical factory in the eastern city of Suzhou, said she had been looking forward to going home for the holiday to see her father and help him clean his house. But she cancelled her plans after a cluster of cases emerged in her home town in the northern province of Hebei.
Shi said she would celebrate the holiday instead with her husband in Suzhou. She said the city had “no new year atmosphere” and that she missed the fireworks and red-and-gold banners of her home town.
“I can’t go home, so I will just work,” she said. “After the epidemic is over, then we will go back.”
The New York Times