Lunar New Year is the most important holiday of the year in China, when hundreds of millions of people travel to their hometown for family reunion. The sheer number of travelers, often migrant workers, makes it the largest human migration in the world.
But things will be different this year, when the New Year falls on Feb. 12, as governments have told migrant workers to stay where they are to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19, especially as the authorities seek to contain resurgent outbreaks in the northeast.
Some cities are offering 1,000 Chinese yuan ($155) to those who stay put, while others are opening up their tourist attractions for migrant workers to visit for free instead of leaving town.
One district in the central city of Changsha is giving away 30 gigabytes in mobile data, 200 e-books and free masks to those who avoid traveling.
China has an estimated 291 million migrant workers, who are registered as rural residents but work in the cities. They mostly take low-paid jobs and are denied many of the social benefits for urbanites.
To many of them, the Lunar New Year holiday, also known as the Spring Festival, is the only time of the year when they return to their village homes and visit their children as well as parents.
The festival this year will be a different one. Although most regions in China have not reported any local COVID cases for months, authorities are taking precautions and trying to stop people from traveling with both restrictions and rewards.
Citing the difficulty to control the virus in the countryside, China’s health authority requires migrant workers to obtain a negative COVID test result and undergo 14 days’ of “health monitoring” after arriving in their rural homes. During that period, they will be asked not to leave home unless absolutely necessary.
Fearing any COVID outbreaks caused by travelers, some local governments and employers have added more restrictions, making it almost impossible for people to return home.
Such policies have been criticized online for being excessive and discriminating against the rural population.
On Wednesday, an official with the National Development and Reform Commission, an agency that oversees economic policies, warned local governments against imposing unnecessary hurdles, and asked authorities to make sure workers who spend the holiday away from home are taken care of.
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.