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In Context

Every year, as China celebrates its New Year (or Spring Festival, as it's been called since the 20th century), hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens take part in the world's largest annual migration.

In 2011, the Chinese government estimated that about half of China's population of 1.3 billion people, 700 million (more than twice the population of the entire United States), would travel home between January 19 and February 27, taking a total of 2.85 billion passenger trips on trains, planes, boats and buses. An average of 2,265 trains per day were scheduled to be in service, including 300 extra trains added to help carry the record 230 million passengers anticipated over the peak period. Still, ticket shortages were expected.

Many of the passengers in this annual pilgrimage are Chinese migrant workers traveling from coastal industrial centers to the interior countryside. Many of them travel home only once a year to visit family they have left behind.

The migration of the peasant work force started in the early 1980s, when the country first opened its economy. The influx of foreign investment created a soaring demand for labor, and millions were lured out of the undeveloped, western farmland to work in factory towns in the southern coastal regions. Because of the size of China (slightly smaller than the United States) and the quality of the transportation available, trips from these coastal regions to the countryside can take many days to complete.

While China has made efforts to accommodate the mass migration, including adding new high-speed rail lines, officials say it will be another five years before China's rapidly expanding rail network will be able to meet demand. Meanwhile, China has been preparing for a massive population shift from the countryside to cities in the next 25 years or so by rapidly building housing and amenities in urban centers.

China has set a goal to urbanize half of its population of 1.3 billion by 2020, and 70 percent by 2050.

Photo caption: Guangzhou Railway Station illuminated in the dark with stranded passengers impatiently waiting for trains to go home.
Credit: Lixin Fan

» BBC News. "The Second Industrial Revolution."
» ChinaSmack. "Chun Yun: World's Largest Yearly Human Migration, 1995-2011."
» CIA. "The World Factbook: China."
» Fan, Lixin. "A Statement and Q&A with Lixin Fan." Spirituality & Practice, October 2009.
» MacLeod, Calum. "New High-speed Rail Aids China's Mass Migration." USA Today, February 2, 2011.