The Great Migration

Take all of the holidays celebrated in your country and by your culture, roll them all into one, and multiply by a multiple of whatever, and you will begin to have just some appreciation of the significance of Spring Festival, otherwise known as Chinese New Year, or the Lunar New Year, to China.

It is, of course, a secular holiday, although there are behavioral customs still practiced by many that undoubtedly have their roots in Chinese folk religion and the yin-yang foundation of Taoism. All of these, however, have little to do with worship and everything to do with insuring good luck in the coming year.

Luck is another facet of superstition and the Chinese, as inductive-thinkers, look at it much differently than Westerners. Luck is luck but the Chinese believe you can greatly influence the chances that good or bad luck will come your way. Feng shui is a methodology, for example, for maximizing the potential for good luck and minimizing the potential for misfortune through the harmonious management of your physical surroundings.

As inductive thinkers the Chinese put great stock in luck - good and bad - and their ability to influence it in their lives.
As inductive thinkers the Chinese put great stock in luck – good and bad – and their ability to influence it in their lives.

There are many rituals, therefore, from when and how to sweep out your home, to not having your hair cut for the first thirty days of the new year that exist for this purpose. Interestingly, I find that fewer and fewer Chinese actually follow all of these rituals, but I have yet to meet the Chinese who wasn’t aware of them.

The rituals, however, are only a small part of the Spring Festival tradition. By far the most important aspect of the holiday, and the one I find so endearing, is the complete and total emphasis on family.   Families are together, no excuses, no matter what the distance that needs to be traveled.

When Mao Zedong defeated the Nationalists to form the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the population of China was only 542 million people, about 1/3 of what it is today. Mao appreciated, however, that the biggest challenge facing his poor country was feeding itself and agriculture in China then, as it still is, was a labor-intensive, albeit glorious, occupation.

Mao, therefore, conducted an active political campaign to convince women to both join their husbands in the fields of China and to have as many children as possible. Within a decade, as a result, the Chinese population swelled by an additional 100 million people. Ultimately, the population grew so rapidly that in 1979 China introduced the family planning policy, informally known as the one child policy, to slow the rapid population growth that was threatening to overcome the country’s social infrastructure.

Formal family registries (huji) were first introduced in China during the Xia Dynasty (c. 2100 BCE – 1600 BCE) as a basis for taxation and social control and are still in use in other parts of Southeast Asia today, including Japan, although they are used for very different reasons.

In China, the current system of registry, known as hukou, was first introduced in 1958 when it was redefined to be a residency registration system as much as a system for family registration.   Your access to social benefits such as schooling for your children, government-provided housing, and medical care was greatly limited outside of the area of your hukuo, or place of registration – normally your place of birth.

As Deng Xiaoping would state some three decades later, “Some shall get rich first,” and the government knew that as the country developed the urban areas would be the first to realize an enhanced standard of living. The hukuo system was therefore introduced to limit the flow of rural workers into the urban areas so as not to overwhelm the country’s urban modernization.

It still exists today, but in modified form. And while the rights of migrant workers, whose numbers are still measured in the hundreds of millions, are getting much more attention by the government and society at large, your hukuo still determines a lot when it comes to the residential opportunities available to you and your family.

Like everything in China the hukao system must be understood in context.  It is not meant to eliminate migration.  If it did, industries like the construction trades would cease to exist.
Like everything in China the hukou system must be understood in context. It is not meant to eliminate migration. If it did, industries like the construction trades would cease to exist.

Like everything else in China, of course, you have to understand the hukou system in context. When the system was first set up all workers were divided into urban workers and rural workers – the latter of which are still sometimes referred to as peasants. It’s not a nice word, for sure, but not meant in the context most Westerners take it. Many English-speaking Chinese say sh*t, as well, when referring to human excrement, because that’s simply the word they know for it. It has no bearing on their education or sense of civility.

While the hukou system sounds downright oppressive to most Westerners, you have to remember that as inductive-thinkers everything is relative to the Chinese. They don’t think in terms of absolutes.

When it introduced the hukou system, the government had no intention of eliminating urban migration in the sense that residency is strictly controlled in the sci-fi world of The Hunger Games or by the Berlin Wall in former real life. It merely wanted to slow it down. (The same is true of the Great Chinese Firewall on the Internet. The government doesn’t want to stop English-speaking Chinese from accessing foreign websites. They simply want to slow the process down, which is precisely why they don’t just take China off-line.)

Today, the hukou system is at the core of the Spring Festival holiday. Many rural husbands and wives typically leave their village to find work in the cities, often living thousands of miles from their families and each other. The children stay with their grandparents so they can go to school and get the medical care that they are entitled to within the jurisdiction of their hukuo.

During Spring Festival, however, mommy and daddy return home, creating what is believed to be the largest human migration on the face of the planet. The statistics are mind numbing. According to government statistics reported in China Daily, during the official forty-day Spring Festival travel period that began February 4, 2015, the Chinese will collectively take 2.8 BILLION trips. At any given time, a population larger that the entire United States will be on the move.

During one ten day period, some 250 million Chinese will travel by train alone, many without the benefit of a seat as the trains are packed to spacial capacity by the necessity of demand. I have personally met people who stood for as long as 16 hours on a train to return to their hometown for the annual festival.

As a result, the country literally shuts down for up to a month. Not quite literally, of course, but pretty close. Officially, it is a three-day national holiday that the government turns into a seven-day holiday by converting weekend days into normal workdays. This year, for example, Sunday, February 15 and Saturday, February 28 became ‘normal’ workdays to allow seven days of uninterrupted time off during the heart of the festival. (New Year’s Day is February 19 but it could be argued that February 18, when families gather over the New Year’s dinner and to watch the national gala on television – and light fireworks, of course – is really the most important day of the festival.)

Not every company shuts down, of course. Retailers and service providers are all open throughout the holiday. And companies like my own (glass furnaces can literally not be shut down) continue to produce during the holiday although we do not ship as the trucking companies, most of which rely on migrant workers, do shut down; as does China Customs and all of the banks, making it virtually impossible to export anything.

When I first arrived in China I considered shuttering production for the festival so that our operators could spend the time with their families until a Chinese colleague set me straight. They would be heart-broken, I was told, as we pay them, according to government regulation, three times their normal pay to work over the holiday. They line up to volunteer.

Again, while a deductive-thinker might find it distasteful to violate an absolute holiday tradition, an inductive thinker will always consider the results to be paramount. When else can you get nine days of pay for three days of work?

More to come.

During the 40-day official travel period surrounding Chinese New Year the Chinese will take an estimated 2.8 BILLION trips.
During the 40-day official travel period surrounding Chinese New Year the Chinese will take an estimated 2.8 BILLION trips.

Note: The author also writes novels under the pen name of Avam Hale. You can find them in the Amazon Kindle store and they can be read on any mobile device loaded with the free Kindle App, available for all operating systems.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.