The annual Spring Festival travel season, called Chunyun, started last Friday five days ahead of schedule, with a new twist: a sharply higher number of migrant workers headed home.
In Beijing's West Railway Station, China's largest, many such workers with backpacks on their shoulders and bags in their hands were on the move. He Yongfeng was among them.
He, 40, who works at the construction site of Bird's Nest -- the main venue for the upcoming Olympics in August -- was shown into a waiting room by volunteers. He plopped into a chair and put down two big tattered bags and a "suitcase" that he had made from a paint container.
In the bags were Beijing dim sum he bought for his parents, an Olympic mascot Fuwa toy for his 11-year-old son and a new watch for his wife.
"As Spring Festival drew near, I was worried about overdue wages and getting a ticket home," he said. In other years, he said, "I had to buy train tickets from scalpers at unreasonably high prices and had to begin worrying about a ticket back as soon as I got home," he added.
But this year, he got paid on time and had a round-trip ticket booked with the help of his construction company. All he had to do was travel. He was one of those able to benefit from a new program from the Ministry of Railways, which started offering round-trip group tickets for migrant workers from companies of over 100 employees this year.
Not all migrant workers were as lucky. Xie Meixia, a nanny with a small Beijing homemaking service company, was unable to buy a ticket despite having waited on line for an entire morning. When she was told that there were special ticket windows for migrant workers at the railway station, Xie reacted with relief. "I'll get up earlier and have a try," she said.
China has about 200 million rural workers in cities, most of whom want to go home during the Spring Festival, which is just when tickets become a luxury because of the country's limited transportation capacity.
"Once I was pushed through a window by two friends to get on a train," said Han Zhongxing, a migrant worker in Beijing who hails from the eastern Jiangxi Province. "I even used to sit in a train corridor, or a rest room."
Although he only got a hard-seat ticket this year, "the 40-hour trip will be much easier," said Han.
Despite the time, energy and money that it takes, a family reunion has always been the dearest wish for migrant workers after a year's hard work.
State Councilor Hua Jianmin said Tuesday that local governments should help guarantee that migrant workers get their full pay on time and ensure their safety on the way home for a happy and peaceful festival.
The government has also provided such services for migrant workers as express lanes, medical services and special trains.
In northwestern Shaanxi, police vehicles escorted 2,000 migrant workers to a train terminal after they had been trapped by heavy snow.
"A Spring Festival with family makes it a real one," said Han. "I hope one day I can go home by air."
(Xinhua News Agency January 25, 2008)