Riding the slow train in China
For officials in Xi Jinping’s China, making trains run on time is more than a figure of speech. As Mr Xi enters his second decade as leader, his strong paternalistic version of Communist Party rule is seeking to draw more legitimacy from the provision of public services that user friendly, provided through modern infrastructure. In the case of China’s railways, at least, that promise of order and efficiency was kept.
From January 7 to February 15, the transport ministry expects 2.1bn trips to be made by Chinese returning home for the Spring Festival, or lunar new year. Some of them become urban professionals, moving between cities on high-speed trains. Many ride slower lü pi huoche or “green skin trains”, squeezed into crowded carriages or sitting on the floor of corridors as they cross China on journeys that can last 40 hours or more. Many millions of them have not seen their hometowns or villages – and often their own children and the aging parents who care for them – for two years, due to pandemic travel restrictions.
On January 16 alone, China’s rail network carried 8.3m passengers. Chaguan was one of them, buying a lounge ticket for the first day of a two-day train journey from Guangzhou, in the south, to Urumqi in the far western region of Xinjiang. Chatting in Guangzhou station before dawn, or during long hours passing through southern China, older travelers recalled the chaos of the Spring Festival migration 30 years ago. Back then passengers would climb through windows into trains so full that people would sleep on luggage racks or stand in toilets. Even 20 years ago the new year trains were full of boxes of fruit, cooking oil, clothes and bedding that workers felt it necessary to carry home.
Today the recession is less severe. Many employers allow more flexible departure and return dates, as China’s labor force shrinks and workers become harder to find and retain. Goods ordered online can be delivered to towns all year round, so there is less demand for physical New Year’s gifts (silver red packets for children are still mandatory). More migrants drive home in shared private cars. Train networks have grown significantly. Stations are busy but not overwhelming. Passengers wait to board trains, with priority lines for children and the frail. There are countries where Chaguan had to pay bribes to board a train or plane. On the Guangzhou-Urumqi run, there are no signs of graft. Passengers without a seat queue at the on-board conductor’s office, ID cards in hand, to be allocated seats that open up between specific stops, as passengers depart. It has a very cheerful holiday atmosphere, like an orderly school trip. Travelers joke that food vendors should give out free holiday food. A young female waitress, dressed in a jacket with a brass button, tells a colleague who is struggling down a crowded corridor that he is to blame for being fat.
But amidst this efficient service, old divisions of class, wealth, ethnicity and gender can also be heard. For green trains there are cross-sections of life in China, a place that remains severely unequal. Some discrimination is completely unconscious. A traveler suddenly asks the team based in Urumqi if they are people from Xinjiang, meaning Uyghurs. “Do I look like a minority?” the female Han Chinese waitress smiles.
Decades of economic growth created winners and losers. Both are found on the train. Mr Zhuang, a truck driver for Jingdong, an e-commerce and logistics giant, is traveling with his wife to the northwestern province of Shaanxi to see their university lecturer son, about to start PhD abroad. Mr Zhuang says his own family’s experience of China’s national rise is “life-changing”. When asked about the prospects for the economy after the pandemic, he praises China’s leaders for treating the people “like a father would his child, they want her to be healthy.” -everyone rich.”
Nearby, Mr. Xing, a gray-haired man from the central province of Henan, is doing too much. He is a security guard in Guangzhou, having become too old for construction work. Overall, China’s rural-to-urban migrants are aging. In 2021 the average age of migrant workers in China will hit 41.7 years, up from 34 in 2008. More and more, young people are avoiding factory jobs far from home. Many older workers without adequate pensions work past the legal retirement age. Mr Xing shares a prefabricated bedroom in Guangzhou with his son and son-in-law. The son, a burly 40-year-old production line supervisor, hadn’t planned a New Year’s trip, but his children, 10 and 16, “kept calling and saying we haven’t been home for a year. ” The eldest attended primary school in Guangzhou, but like many migrant children who did not have the residency papers to go to a city high school, they returned to Henan. The youngest Mr. Xing hopes to hold his daughter over the holidays, perhaps taking her to an amusement park. But she wants to be a teacher and has a lot of schoolwork. Considering so many years away from his children, he sighs: “I don’t know how to explain that feeling.”
Collective progress, individual angst
Mrs. Li, a street sweeper in Guangzhou, sits on a bucket next to a train door. A widow at the age of 56, she is six years past the retirement age for female blue-collar workers, but she defies China’s strong, loyal welfare rules. Years of factory jobs did not create a big city pension. Her bare bones health insurance can only be accessed in her rural home. She makes 4,000 yuan ($590) after a month of 12-hour days, with no days off. When covid quarantines stopped work, she should by law have been paid, but her employer, a subcontractor, refused. Without money, “you’re nobody,” she says. Her son, who is a factory worker, does not have the money to buy the house and car needed for marriage. With so much pressure, young people “don’t want children, they don’t want marriages,” she sighs. Her parents and husband have had covid, so she hopes she won’t put them at risk. She wants to visit because, at their age, “every new year counts. ” Other passengers echo her speech about the harshness of life. The shiny infrastructure is impressive. It is more difficult to build a fair, happy society.■
Read more from Chaguan, our China columnist:
Many Chinese people seem ready to move on from covid-19 (Jan 12)
China’s Communist Party plans to avoid zero-covid count (Jan 5)
Xi Jinping’s covid background politics (December 15)