Friday, February 01, 2008

The World's Largest Human Migration

These are a couple of pictures that were recently taken at the main rail station in Guǎngzhōu, one of China's largest cities. I've heard it said that the annual return of workers from China's cities to their home districts is one of the largest migrations in human history. For example, hundreds of millions of passengers (essentially a number the size of the entire US population) clog the rails during the Spring Festival travel season, which runs from about two weeks before the Lunar New Year and ends more than a month later.

Why do so many people travel around Chūnjié? Well, as China has industrialized over the past several decades, millions and millions of people (oftentimes, but not always, working age husbands and fathers) have left their villages in search of work in China's mega-cities. Their families stay behind, while they live in cramped, shared quarters near the factories where they make our iPods (and pretty much everything else we own). In many instances, they have one and only one chance each year to return home and spend time with their families.

This year, the trip home has been particularly taxing. For weeks, bad weather has plagued the central and southern regions of China. Shànghǎi has had its biggest snowfall in decades. Icy roads and power lines have caused widespread outages and slowed the movement of coal around the country. In terms of the human migration, millions (yes, millions) of people have been stranded at rail stations, with the government urging them to stay where they are rather than fight a balky transportation system and continued poor travel conditions.

So what are some of the stranded workers saying about all of this?

"The central government actually cares a lot about us migrant workers, but there is just nothing anyone can do about this worsening weather."

"We in the North eat dumplings during the holiday, but people in the South don't. Southern food really tastes terrible. It's really going to be different celebrating the New Year here."

Pride in country and pride in one's local cuisine...all of these weather problems have obviously not made much of a dent in two of the defining features of Chinese society today.

~Steve

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