Many Chinese will have to forego their family visits on this New Year celebration. This is particularly bitter for migrant workers.
New Year’s decorations in Beijing: Travel restrictions and quarantine requirements determine the festival Photo: Thomas Peter / Reuters
PEKING taz | When Ms. Huang talks about this year’s New Year celebrations, she can hardly hide her pent-up emotions behind the light blue face mask. The 50-year-old has set up a market stall in the Picun workers’ settlement on the outskirts of Beijing, where she sells sunflower seeds, dried fruits and apples by the roadside in the freezing cold.
“I usually work until just before the New Year celebrations, because then people go shopping again,” she says. After that, she always visits her son, who grows up with his grandmother 700 kilometers south in Shandong Province. In the year of the ox, which is about to begin, the family association has to fail – the travel restrictions and quarantine requirements are too strict.
Millions of Chinese will not be able to see their relatives again at the most important festival of the year. The New Year celebrated on February 12 according to the lunar calendar is described by many media as the “greatest migration in the world”, after all, almost half of the 1.4 billion inhabitants are usually on the move. Last year, the New Year’s days ensured that the coronavirus was spread from Wuhan to all provinces – a scenario that must be prevented at all costs in 2021.
There is no official travel ban, but there are a number of obstacles. Since individual strands of infection have been spreading again in China after months without infections, according to the national health commission, every Chinese who drives in rural areas not only has to show a current Covid test, but also has to complete a 14-day “health observation” during which their own body temperature is given several times a day. Some villages have also closed their borders completely out of fear of imported virus cases.
Migrant workers in a parallel society
These measures, as many users on social media have criticized, affect less China’s urban elites, but above all the 300 million migrant workers who have moved from the underdeveloped hinterland regions to earn money in the coastal metropolises. For many of them, a fancy New Year’s celebration is a personal tragedy. After all, they can often only see their abandoned children and parents once a year.
Tens of thousands of migrant workers live in the Picun settlement on the eastern periphery of Beijing. Far behind the fifth ring of the city, past thermal power stations and high-voltage pylons, lies the walled residential area, at the entrance of which black-uniformed men with Russian fur hats make sure that every visitor shows a “green health code” on their smartphone in the Corona app.
In the narrow alleys, a city within the city finally reveals itself: barbershops and cell phone shops, small corner bars and vegetable markets are lined up in a confined space.
A short garbage collector with a hunched back shuffles through Marktstrasse with a gray sack in tow. She moved to Beijing from the mountainous Sichuan province, she says. She lives here with her son, but her three grandchildren still live in their distant homeland. “We can’t see her this year,” says the 70-year-old: “My son has a full-time job. He cannot afford to have to be in quarantine for 14 days upon return. “
But in addition to the punitive measures, Beijing’s government officials have also set a number of positive incentives to motivate the population to have a “peaceful and healthy” New Year celebration. Companies were asked to guarantee the migrant workers who stayed at home opportunities to earn income. Streaming services offer free films, tourist attractions discounts and the major telecommunications providers offer 20 gigabytes of free data.
More security guards than travelers
On this sunny February morning, there is a yawning emptiness on the forecourt of the Beijing Central Railway Station, where thousands of migrant workers are usually waiting for their trains with their belongings at this time of year: only a few dozen Chinese are resting on their suitcases in the winter sun, keeping up with the times Watching cell phone videos and smoking dead.
In front of the splendid socialist building, the numbers of passengers are clearly inferior to the security forces: a young company of recruits in olive-green winter coats patrols the railed-off station square, countless police officers warm up in parked coaches.
Many Chinese will be happy when February 12th, the year of the rat – inevitably linked to the corona outbreak since 2020 – will finally be over. Taxi driver Li Kai is not at all worried that the year of the ox will be a good one.
He comes from a satellite city in Beijing, where his wife and four children still live. The virus has long since ceased to be an issue in Li’s life, and there is not much time to ponder in his everyday life. “I work hard to support my family,” says the man in his mid-forties with the short hairstyle. His shift starts at six, and he doesn’t finish work until eleven in the evening. Anyone who gets into their white taxi has to wear a mask and register with their smartphone using a QR code.
He plans to visit his family despite the travel restrictions. “Although I officially have to do a 14-day self-isolation in my hometown, no one strictly checks it,” says Li Kai. And he has already been vaccinated anyway, he says. The second dose will follow in February.