Many follow call to curtail non-essential travel during Spring Festival holiday for faster COVID-19 eradication and a safe future

By Tao Xing
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, February 7, 2021
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A girl poses for a photo in front of two gigantic decorative lights to welcome the Year of the Ox in Macao Special Administrative Region on January 29. [Photo/Xinhua]

The city of Yiwu in Zhejiang province, east China, boasts the largest wholesale market of small commodities and a large population of migrant workers. Wang Guocheng, Director of the Yiwu Human Resources and Social Security Bureau, is tasked with finding out the travel plans of the workers during the Spring Festival holiday.

"Hold on please. The data has been updated just now," Wang told Beijing Review in the middle of a call.

By 10 p.m. on January 26, the number of migrant workers who had answered the bureau's survey had crossed 636,000 from the previous day's 598,700. "During the Spring Festival, 47.38 percent of them have decided to stay in Yiwu," Wang said. "I think the proportion will rise in the coming days."

The festival, also known as the Chinese New Year, is what Christmas is to most people in the West. Every year, tens of millions of people reunite with their families and celebrate a new beginning together.

However, this year's 40-day travel rush, starting on January 28, days before the festival on February 12, is anticipated to dwindle. As a precaution against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), people who work outside their native places have been asked not to return to their hometowns for the celebration, but instead, to stay in the cities where they work to reduce the flow of travelers.

Get a gift bag

Dubbed the "world's supermarket," Yiwu produces nearly two thirds of all Christmas decorations used worldwide and is an indicator of the vitality of China's foreign trade. Last year, in order to promote production resumption, the local government agencies and enterprises arranged charter flights and coaches to bring their workers back from other places as transportation was disrupted by the epidemic.

This year, Yiwu is trying to keep its workers in the city during the holiday.

One incentive is a gift bag. Migrant workers and business people from other cities, provinces and regions, including Hong Kong and Macao, as well as foreign countries, are eligible to get the gift bag if they are registered with the police and stay in Yiwu till March 1, according to the municipal government.

The gifts include a 500-yuan ($77.1) coupon and 20 GB of mobile data. People can apply for, receive and use the coupon on Alipay, China's leading digital payment platform, and use the mobile data through their own telecom operators.

In addition, during the festival, all Yiwu residents can access digital TV signals, take public transport, visit public parks, and watch some cultural performances for free. Parents can send their children to free winter camps organized by the government.

Yiwu's revenue in 2020 was 16.23 billion yuan ($2.51 billion), according to the city's finance bureau.

Wang said the gift bags themselves could cost 500 million yuan ($77.27 million). This accounts for 3 percent of the city's revenue. "It might cost more if more people choose to stay on. We don't have a cap, we want more to stay," he said.

Why has Yiwu dedicated such a large sum of money to this initiative? "In addition to responding to the call by the Central Government to prevent a resurgence of the epidemic, another reason is it can start production immediately after the Spring Festival and avoid a delay in workers' return," Wang said.

Many local companies and factories are supporting the call. Kingston, a supply chain service provider, is offering its non-native staff incentives if they do not return home, such as a cash bonus, and is organizing a Spring Festival dinner for workers. Jin Xiaomin, President of the company, told Beijing Review they have 51 migrant workers. Of them, 46 have decided to stay in Yiwu.

In addition to persuading people to stay on, Wang and his colleagues have also been working out how many people will go back home, their destinations, and when they will return. "Based on the calculation, we might arrange a charter flight or coach to send them home and bring them back after the holiday," he said.

Many other cities and provinces are following different measures to encourage people to stay where they are during the Spring Festival holiday.

Call, not order

A circular released by the general offices of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and the State Council in January said residents in areas at high risk of COVID-19 should stay where they are as a precautionary measure. Those from medium-risk areas would require permission from the local epidemic prevention and control authorities to travel. Those living in low-risk areas should avoid traveling unless necessary.

However, some local authorities added other measures, such as quarantine for people after they return home, or scrapping certain travel options. In response to such measures, Wang Bin, an official of the Bureau of Disease Prevention and Control, the National Health Commission (NHC), said at a press conference on January 27 that while implementing policies, the local situation should also be taken into consideration.

"A sound overall plan is needed. Also, governmental sectors should provide convenient and warm services for returnees," she said, giving the example of Guizhou Province in southwest China. The local authorities in Guizhou are subsidizing the cost of nucleic acid tests. Those returning for the holiday need to pay only 30 yuan ($4.6), to encourage them to participate in epidemic control.

"All local governments must not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to stop residents from returning to their hometowns for Spring Festival reunions. They should provide convenience to those who need to go back," said Zhao Chenxin, a spokesperson for the National Development and Reform Commission.

Irresponsible execution might cause a good policy to be misunderstood, said a commentary published on the official social media account of the Committee of Political and Legal Affairs of the CPC Central Committee on January 28, indicating that the work to ensure a happy Spring Festival is a test of a city's warmth and governance. "We should not only make people who come back from a long distance feel warm, but also give people who choose to stay a sense of belonging," the article stated.

Mi Feng, Deputy Director of the Department of Publicity, NHC, said during a January 31 press conference that the State Council's joint prevention and control mechanism would inspect and supervise local authorities' work so that if the latter made mistakes, they could be corrected.

Different choices

Tang Yujie, who works in branding in Shenzhen, a boomtown in Guangdong Province, south China, decided to return to her home city Maanshan in Anhui Province, east China. Tang told Beijing Review that "it would be too miserable for a girl to stay in Shenzhen alone during the reunion festival."

According to Maanshan's policy, Tang needs to register with the community authorities and take a nucleic acid test once she returns; she must remain at home until she receives the test result. "The policy is acceptable and no trouble," she said.

In the past, Wei Yanli, a staff of Kingston, visited her relatives and met friends during the Spring Festival holiday. But this year, she has chosen to stay in Yiwu. "I have not gone back home for nearly one year and miss my parents, but … it might not be safe taking public transport," Wei said.

Thankfully for her, she is not alone in Yiwu as her husband and son are there as well. However, the situation is different for Liu Jinyuan, an assistant engineer at a Beijing-based state-owned aerospace science and technology research institution.

Liu comes from Henan Province, central China. She got the job last year after graduation. Liu told Beijing Review she can't go home for the Spring Festival due to the company's rules. "People will be given permission to leave Beijing only if it is really necessary like they have an emergency," she said.

The forlorn 25-year-old, who is single and lives on her own in Beijing, wondered where and what to eat on New Year's Eve, the time for the traditional family meal. "Frozen dumplings might be my only choice," Liu said. "I hope we can get vaccinated as soon as possible and the epidemic ends."

The circular also says the staff of government organizations and state-owned companies should take the lead in staying where they work during the holiday. And they are doing just that. According to Wang Guocheng, nearly all public servants in Yiwu are staying in the city.

Xu Zihao, who works at a state-owned enterprise, is among those who won't return home. It will be his first Spring Festival away from home and without his parents. Xu told Beijing Review, "My parents work in local government organizations. They asked me to understand and support the call and my company's rule. And I myself also understand it."

According to a press conference held by the State Council's joint prevention and control mechanism against COVID-19 on January 20, this year's Spring Festival migration is expected to result in 1.7 billion passenger trips. That would be a 10-percent rise over last year, when the epidemic prevailed, but more than 40 percent below the figure in 2019. Mass gatherings continue to be restricted to strengthen epidemic control.

"My parents miss me and I miss them. Although we can't enjoy the reunion festival together this year, we believe the virus will be truly beaten if we support epidemic control and then finally, we will meet. So, staying here is another way to reunite quickly, right?" Xu said.

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