ZHENGZHOU, China—Chinese New Year has come and gone once again. This time of year, as businesses, factories and schools shut down and hundreds of millions of workers and students return to their hometowns, media outlets are usually obligated to dust off last year’s article and update it online with the latest incalculable statistics about “the largest human migration on earth.”
But what the world is watching, instead, is the outbreak of coronavirus as it overtakes the sanctity of this annual pilgrimage with its own grim statistics: more than 600 dead, more than 30,000 reported cases (as many as 100,000 total cases according to some estimates), and a city of 11 million cut off from the outside world. The virus has spread across all Chinese provinces and at least 24 other countries, including the United States. And like SARS in 2003, fear spreads with it, as public health experts question China’s ability to contain the outbreak.
What the world is not watching, then, is an unremarkable statistic on the China State Railway website: “The railway sector has opened 81 pairs of public-welfare ‘slow trains’ . . . thus providing convenience for people in old revolutionary base areas, poverty-stricken areas, and remote mountainous areas to travel in Spring Festival Transport.”
There is an artistic genre of sorts that portrays the real life drama of chunyun, what Chinese call the spring migration. Books and films depict sleepless multitudes at train stations, travelers desperately clambering through train windows to get a seat, and disheveled workers forced to stand for days-long journeys, all to be reunited with their families, to see their children they had to leave behind, and to get home. Last year, I was living in a remote village in southwestern China to research rural issues and decided to have my own “authentic chunyun experience.” I called Lü Baohong (pronounced bau-hoh-ng), my neighbor in the village, who was in eastern China working construction. “I want to take the train with you,” I told him, inviting myself along. “OK,” he said, a man of few words.
For my first chunyun, I took a slow train across the country with three migrant workers and hundreds of millions of others. Somewhere on the 36-hour journey I realized it would be my last. As China’s transportation networks such as high-speed rail and flights improve, the chunyun genre, as we know it—with all its struggle and triumph of the human spirit—is quickly going the way of the slow train.
Chunyun is also how I learned about the Russian prostitute.
“I heard there’s a white xiaojie near your village,” Dong Dawei tells me excitedly, flashing a toothy grin. “Have you seen her?” His eyes bulge. Old Dong, as they call him, sits cross-legged on a lower bunk, one of five in the cramped dormitory. Construction helmets, instant noodle cartons, and empty beer bottles litter the room.
“I’m the only white person I’ve seen,” I reply, more interested in the graffiti on the walls than in his question. Every end is a new beginning, someone has scrawled in black marker. Focus on achieving happiness. The walls of sheet metal are covered with inspiration but provide little insulation against the Zhengzhou winter outside. My hands glow orange as I hover over a space heater next to my friend and neighbor, Lü Baohong. “She’s 2,000 yuan per night,” Old Dong continues. “Must be Russian.”
Next to him on the bed sprawls 17-year old Li Weihong, or A Hong (pronounced ah-hoh-ng), who is chatting with a girl over Kuaishou, the SnapChat app of China (“She’s only my temporary girlfriend,” he insists coolly). He clutches a cigarette as he texts and I notice a stick-and-poke tattoo on the sides of his hands. With palms together, as if praying, the four-character couplets read:
Life and death are set by Fate, wealth and power by Heaven.
The Confucian wisdom has an odd sense of fatalism for someone determined to change the course of his life. Last year, A Hong dropped out of vocational school. “I’m not good at memorizing,” he told me, and his test scores didn’t earn him a place in high school. Vocational school is the alternative. After two years into his four-year vocational degree, he decided to go out (出去)—to join the migrant labor force—and start a new beginning building apartment towers. He’s been in Zhengzhou, Henan’s provincial capital, for the last year winding wire around rebar. Rebar makes reinforced concrete, which makes 20-story residentials. And residentials make someone other than A Hong a lot of money. “I won’t be able to sleep tonight,” he says excitedly thinking about our journey tomorrow. He hasn’t seen his family for almost a year.
In the village where A Hong is from, going out is the norm. For some it’s economic necessity, for others youthful curiosity. Oftentimes it’s both. China has an estimated 290 million migrant laborers, roughly 35 percent of the entire working population, and much of the country’s infrastructure development and economic growth are the fruits of their backbreaking labor.
But migrants face stigma and structural discrimination in the cities based on their hukou, a relic of the pre-1978 State-led economy. The residence permit classifies citizens as an urban or rural hukou, each with different rights. Rural hukou holders are allotted arable land—though it is still owned by the State—while those with urban hukou have access to education, healthcare and other social services in their city. Migrant workers, then, who usually work far from where they hold a hukou, have little or no access to these services. Last year, when rebar went through Baohong’s foot, he could only get treatment in Yunnan. In the same way, Old Dong’s son couldn’t go to school in the cities where his dad worked, so he grew up with his mom back in the village. Workers from Yunnan, China’s second poorest province, are even looked down on by other migrants, Old Dong tells me. “We have to look out for our own people,” he says, meaning the 26 Yunnanese on their construction site. “Everyone knows we’re tough though. They don’t dare mess with us.”
The conversation lulls and we crawl into our bunks. My mattress is cold and hard, just a piece of plywood with a thin blanket draped over it. But even this is better than the two nights to come. Baohong booked us hard seats, fully upright bench seats that are aptly named, and I feel both dread and anticipation as I think about the 36-hour journey. For now, I shiver, fully clothed, under two worn blankets and stare at the black scrawls on the bunk above me: It’s time to pursue a better life! Work hard! I lay in the darkness and wonder who wrote that, and why they came out to work, and who they left behind, and if they ever really found it.
The next day, no one clambers through the window for a seat on the slow train. Instead, we line up outside the K635 and wait as an attendant calmly checks tickets. The dark green cars stretch down the platform like a strand of cucumbers and we step aboard the last one. The four of us—myself, Baohong, A Hong, and another worker from Yunnan named Dong Qingzhi—plonk down on our hard seats as it lurches out of the station. 17:23 sharp. Other than a middle-aged woman in faux fur and pleather and another worker with a pile of peanuts, we have Car 16 almost to ourselves.
“Where is everybody?” I ask the attendant. He stiffly punches a hole in each of our tickets, unfazed by chunyun’s poor turnout. “No one takes the greenskins anymore,” he says matter-of-fact, using the slow train’s nickname. “Maybe they’re on faster trains.”
Baohong recounts how passengers used to squeeze anywhere they could fit. “You didn’t dare stand up cause you’d lose your seat,” he tells me. “We couldn’t use the bathrooms cause people were crammed in there.”
This is Baohong’s tenth chunyun. He grew up the youngest of three brothers—and the most expensive. Because of family planning restrictions, his parents had to pay a $200 fine, a significant sum for subsistence farmers. Ever since he was 14, he has been going out to work to help makes ends meet. “Everyone who can go out does,” he told me when I visited the village where he grew up. He is soft-spoken and his face is kind but seems as if it should smile more than it does. “There’s no work here.” Now, even his wife goes out to work in a café in the provincial capital while their three-year-old daughter lives with his in-laws next door to me. Baohong is glad no one has to cram into bathrooms anymore.
In recent years China has revolutionized its transportation system. In contrast to the 81 slow trains operating during Spring Festival this year, 5,275 pairs of high-speed bullet trains are also running—and at speeds of almost 200 miles per hour. With roughly 18,000 miles of track, China already has the world’s largest network of high-speed rail and plans to build another 6,000 miles by 2025. It is also expected to become the world’s largest air travel market by 2022, so it’s ramping up airport infrastructure like Beijing Daxing International Airport, which opened in September and is now the world’s largest air terminal. Logistics and services are also now easier than ever. I marveled as Baohong purchased our tickets online using a bot and cashless payment. So, as we sit stiffly on the hard seats, I am wondering if Baohong might take the bullet train next year. Then, in his soft-spoken way, he tells me: “Actually, if you hadn’t wanted to train, we all would have flown back.”
The Hawthorne effect is a cardinal sin for sociologists. If the subjects of a study know they’re being watched, they might alter their behavior and nullify the results. As I sat in Car 16 interviewing Baohong and scribbling observations in my notebook, I realized, too late, the error of my socially unscientific ways. “I want to take the train with you,” were my words. So now, instead of flying home—a journey of two hours—we are on a greenskin for two days so that I could have an “authentic chunyun experience.”
Just then, A Hong and Qingzhi return. “We’re going to upgrade to hard sleepers,” A Hong says, upbeat. “Want to join?” Like the hard seats, the bunk beds are aptly named. Baohong looks at me, hopeful, and I relinquish all self-righteous intentions of an authentic chunyun. We pay the attendant and wheel our luggage the entire length of the train—past the pleather lady and a guy with a pile of peanut shells—to Car 2.
The hard sleepers were an extra $25 and worth every yuan. There are six to a compartment—a bottom, middle and top bunk on each side—and though the mattresses are firm, they are softer than plywood. Overall comfort, though, depends mostly on who is sharing your compartment.
When we arrive, two men are lounging on the coveted bottom bunks in full-body long johns. They look up at us from their card game.
“What country are you from?” the fat one asks me. He’s genuinely friendly, and also doesn’t mind making me feel like a spectacle. I ignore the turquoise undies that glare through his gaping fly.
“You’re small for an American,” the lady from the next compartment pipes in.
“How long have you been in our China?” the skinny one asks. He and his friend are from the outskirts of Beijing and his guttural mumble is familiar from my years in the capital.
“Over ten years.”
“That’s a long time,” the fat one says, rolling his shirt up over his belly. The Beijing bikini is common up north, but mid-winter sightings are rare. “Will you forget your language?”
The lady next door scoffs at the question. The skinny guy defends the fat man. A migrant from the Jingpo ethnic group says he forgets some of his dialect when he’s in the city working. A man in uniform rolls a narrow cart down the aisle selling fruit. “20 kuai!” he yells. Three bucks.
Meanwhile, Baohong gets a text from Old Dong. He stayed behind to collect everyone’s pay for the last year, allowing Baohong and the others to get home to their families. Their bonuses were smaller than expected, he says and suggests that maybe the head of their work crew, the one who contracted with the developer and recruited them, is skimming off the top. They calculate amongst themselves what they made, how much their boss likely contracted for the job, and how much he must be shortchanging them. They won’t work for him again.
“If you find a boss you can trust,” the Jingpo man says, “then stay with him.” For seven years he has followed the same boss around the country.
The fat man and skinny guy are on their way to Yunnan to weld a smelter. Their boss thinks they can do it in 15 days, but they say 20. What do bosses know?
“How much does a welder in your country make?” the fat one turns attentions to me again.
“How much is one of your dollars in our money?”
“How much to take a wife?”
Amidst cards and instant noodles, the questions continue until I take refuge in my top bunk. The lights go out at 22:00 and, except for snoring from the bottom bunk, Car 2 is quiet.
We wake up surrounded by a thick fog. Winter fields and cinder block houses blur past like an ashen smudge as we plod through the Chinese equivalent of flyover states. Since the country’s economic reforms began in 1978, it has had a strong east-west economic divide. Cities along the eastern seaboard were opened up early to international trade while inland areas were relegated to agrarian production. That divide largely continues today, as China’s megacities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen grow wealthier and its hinterlands lag further behind.
At the same time, in absolute economic terms, China’s rural residents are largely better off now than ever before. After 40 years of economic growth, wealth on the east coast is trickling inland. Western provinces are on an infrastructure binge, building highways, bridges, waterways and hydropower projects across the region. And in 2015, the Chinese Communist Party declared a war on rural poverty, vowing to eliminate it by 2020. The abject poverty bar is low—roughly $500 annual income per person, plus basic education, healthcare, and housing—but the impact of the anti-poverty policies is high, especially where I lived. Baohong’s in-laws received around $7,000 from the government to build a new house and in 2018 the village’s dirt road, which passes between our houses, was paved for the first time. While official statistics should always be taken with a grain of salt, China’s National Bureau of Statistics reports that more than 80 million people were lifted out of poverty from 2013 to 2018, and at his customary New Year’s greeting last month, President Xi Jinping declared another ten million lifted out of poverty in 2019. About seven million remain in abject rural poverty; by the end of 2020, Xi predicts that such absolute poverty will be eliminated, though many are skeptical as to the accuracy of the figures and the sustainability of the efforts.
In the past, China’s economic growth gave Baohong opportunity to go out and send resources back. Now, for the first time he may have options closer to home, within his native province, or even in his wife’s village. “Maybe I can stay home next year and do tea,” he tells me with hopeful eyes. Middle class consumers on the east coast are paying a premium for pu’er tea and his wife’s village grows a passable crop. “Reinforced concrete is exhausting,” he explains, “and my in-laws are getting too old to take care of my daughter. Keep trying! New life from my own hands!” He speaks the last two phrases with determination, like something he read off a sheet metal wall.
But for A Hong, the vocational school dropout, there are no other options. I join him between Cars 2 and 3—a de facto smoking section—where we lumber back and forth with the train. Finally I work up the courage to ask: “Why did you decide to drop out of school?” I pray the compassion and condemnation at odds in my heart don’t come through in my voice.
“My father’s kidneys failed,” he says. “He had to have dialysis twice a week and it’s expensive.” Ninety-five percent of treatment is covered under national health insurance but for a rural household the other five percent adds up quickly. “My mom wanted me to stay in school, but I knew we needed the money. So I went out.” He was only 15 then but he speaks of it matter-of-fact, with detachment, as if deciding between Pepsi or Coke. He adds, “My dad has been gone over a year now.” The tracks rumble in the silence and it occurs to me, as his hand raises a cigarette to his lips, that sometimes our decisions are made for us.
Life and death are set by Fate, wealth and power by Heaven.
An attendant’s voice pierces my dreams: “We are arriving at Kunming Station.” It’s 4:30 in the morning, and Car 2 begins to stir. Soon, the slow train chugs unceremoniously into the station and wheezes to a stop, then hundreds of haggard passengers crowd out onto the platform and shuffle on to their destinations. We shuffle to McDonald’s. Baohong will stay in Kunming until his wife gets leave from the café, and I will take an eight-hour van ride with A Hong back to his village. For now, the city sleeps and so do we, along with 20 others snoozing at McTables.
It is the end of my slow train journey and, for the slow train itself, the end of an era. Next year, no one will clamber through train windows for a seat. And, thankfully, no one will have to ride in a lavatory to get back home. Will China State Railway even dispatch any public-welfare slow trains? The “authentic chunyun experience,” as we knew it, is finished. Patronizing sentimentalism might mourn its loss, even at the gain of hundreds of millions of lives improved, and well-intentioned naivety might claim to grasp the complexities of a migrant worker’s life after just two nights on a train. I will not. But I do celebrate that friends like Baohong, for the first time in life, have options. I must admire friends like A Hong who contend with the dictates of Fate and reveal the strength of the human spirit. And I am grateful for the example of friends like Old Dong. He flew from Zhengzhou that morning and, as we slept fitfully in McDonald’s, he texted: “I’ve arrived in Kunming.”
Maybe next year I’ll fly.