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China's Lunar New Year falls amid a COVID surge and hard financial times


This weekend marks the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Rabbit. And in China, that means it's time for hundreds of millions of people who work in cities to travel to their home villages to see family. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, people can travel without mandatory COVID tests and lockdowns. People are also traveling amid an enormous surge in COVID cases. Here's NPR's Emily Feng.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The Transport Ministry in China estimates people will make some 2.1 billion trips this month for the holidays, mostly departing from big cities and fanning out into the countryside.


FENG: But Yue Guirong is heading the opposite way. She left her village and has just arrived at this Beijing train station, weighed down by packages. What's inside? - we ask her.

YUE GUIRONG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "Seafood and our specialty, sea duck eggs," she says, packages of hometown snacks for her son. She wanted to bring him a taste of home. And she cheerfully took the 24-hour slow train to Beijing from her home in southern China.

YUE: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "The rules were really relaxed from departure to arrival," she says. "Travel went very smoothly."

At the same Beijing train station, 22-year-old Chen Junjie is getting ready to leave for the tropical south. He's had a rough three years. Most of his degree program in Beijing was spent locked down on campus there.

CHEN JUNJIE: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says, "I think in the last four years, I really only had a year and a half of class. The rest was just online." Some weeks, he couldn't even leave his dorm. So he's understandably excited to reunite with loved ones. They're planning a big party.

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "Large gatherings were not allowed during the past three years," he says. "So this year, my entire extended family can finally get together. Even my grandparents are coming," he says. Looming over all this frenzied holiday travel is the prospect of more COVID transmissions, however, because China's seen nearly 1 billion people infected by the virus. That's according to a new Peking University study. China's public health authorities have warned smaller localities to stock up on medical supplies and to vaccinate the elderly. But there are no rules stopping someone from traveling now, even if they're sick.

WANG FENG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Taxi driver Wang Feng says he's trying to put off going home to rural northwestern China. He's not worried about COVID. He made it through the first peak, and everyone he knows has already gotten it.

WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "If you do test positive, just stay at home," he says. "No one cares anymore about COVID." What's really on his mind is money.

WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "After three years of the pandemic, I'm nearly broke," he says. Normally, he'd come home laden with gifts of alcohol and cigarettes for the men and new clothing from Beijing for the women. But China's economy has been tanking. It posted its lowest economic growth figures in four decades for last year because COVID controls and now high infections have hurt the working class, like Mr. Wang. So no gifts.

WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Mr. Wang says he feels a lot of pressure. He's the sole breadwinner in the family, and he still has a mortgage to pay off. And his income declined, he says, as people spent less on taxis.

WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: It's a Chinese tradition to wear new clothes on the first day of the Lunar New Year this weekend. But Mr. Wang says he's showing up in the clothes he's wearing right now. He hasn't had the money to buy new clothes for three years. Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.