- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 29, 2006

The world’s most intense annual transfer of humanity climaxed over the weekend, with hundreds of millions of Chinese traveling home to celebrate the lunar new year.

Officials said a total of 2 billion trips will have been generated by the end of the new year homecoming, which runs from Jan. 14 to Feb. 28, straining rail and highway capacity to the limit.

Beijing’s three railway stations swarmed with 300,000 travelers on a single day last week, more than four times the estimated number of daily passengers who took off from Washington’s airports around Christmas.

Most of the travelers are people who migrated from farms to the more developed east coast and major cities such as Beijing in search of jobs — often producing consumer goods for export markets.

Uneven regional development has made even a marginalized city life more viable than farming, leading huge numbers of people to move to the city in recent years. A large percentage of them return home to visit family at the new year, which was celebrated yesterday.

“Everybody back home kept saying that it’s easy to make money in Beijing,” said An Kui, 33, who left a small village in the southwest to work for a Beijing moving company 10 years ago. “Nowadays you just can’t find many young people who stay in the village any more.”

Top Chinese leaders, concerned about growing unrest in the countryside, were shown on state television yesterday visiting with farm families.

President Hu Jintao was seen sharing a bowl of dumplings with a farmer, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was shown on television asking an elderly women if her bed was warm enough.

Ji Jialun, a professor at Beijing Transportation University, said the increasing mobility of workers was an indicator of China’s fast economic growth.

“It’s a result and a remedy of the unbalanced distribution of resources and labor,” he said.

Chinese news reports said the number of new year’s trips has doubled to 2 billion from 1 billion in the past decade, placing huge strains on the country’s rail system.

“Although the government added several hundred trains to alleviate the traffic, we are still 5,000 trains short,” Mr. Ji said.

Freight traffic on major routes was halted last week to make way for the passengers.

About 30 percent of passengers traveled by air or on highways, but railways remain the most popular form of transportation for long trips because of cheap fares and accessibility. China’s rail network is the third-largest in the world after the United States’ and Russia’s.

The tradition of returning home for the lunar new year began in the 1950s after leader Mao Zedong urged young Chinese and state-owned enterprises to move north and west to help with local development.

The population flow reversed in the 1980s, when drastic economic changes sent farmers thronging to the more prosperous coastal cities.

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