Editorial - Away we go: being a passenger in China
Spring Festival marks the beginning of the lunar year, and it is by far the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar. Traditionally, it is a time to honor one’s ancestors and make way for better luck in the new year, but in contemporary China, it mostly represents an occasion for family reunion. Decades of turbulent and uneven modernization created a unique situation for Chinese families. In rural areas, parents often move to bigger cities seeking better working conditions, while children and the elderly are “left behind.” In urban areas, young Chinese often move away from their families to attend college and work in different cities or even abroad.
That the majority of the population is on the move is a rather imperceptible phenomenon, but the Spring Festival is when it materializes before our eyes: every year, the world's largest annual human migration takes place in China. Around 3 billion trips are made over a 40-day period (generally from January 10 to February 10), putting immense pressure on what is arguably the most developed public transportation system in the world. Many of us might be familiar with images of packed train stations and complaints from Chinese colleagues of how hard it is to find a plane ticket back home for the holidays. This phenomenon is called 春运 chunyun in Mandarin and inspires us to tell the stories of passengers at the four corners of China. In this gigantic country, moving from region to region, and even within the same city, can be a time-consuming and tiring task, although often required by the fast-paced modern life.
Luckily, the country is developing its railways, subways, and highways nonstop to allow even more people to reach their destinations in comfort and safety. In 2020 there were 38,000 kilometers of high-speed railway lines already operating in China, and 32,000 more under construction. Air travel for non-military passengers is a recent introduction in the Chinese skies: the six major state-owned companies only started operating their flights in 1987. And, of course, taxis are to be seen everywhere in Chinese cities. However, apps such as 滴滴出行 Didi Chuxing (the Chinese Uber) are taking up an increasingly bigger share of the market and providing tens of thousands of jobs to anyone who owns or can rent a car.
Being a passenger in China is a daily experience for millions. It is, in fact, much more likely than being a driver and somehow feels like a metaphor for what life is in such a big and rapidly-changing country. Large-scale urban redevelopment, a style of policymaking that often meddles in the private sphere, extremely competitive working culture, and omnipresent feelings of uncertainty leave many under the impression they are living their lives on the passenger seat. In such a context, going far is both a sought-after dream and a looming need for many.
Our January Issue: Passengers will take you on a journey through the meanings of moving around in China.