Chinese New Year isn’t just a holiday. It's the largest annual human migration on Earth. And to Yang Jianguo and Liu Mingchun, it's the only time they get to reunite with their children 1,000 miles away.
For decades, migrant workers like Yang have been the engine of China’s spectacular economic boom. But while their work is welcome, their children are not. The high cost of living and strict city regulations make essentials like schooling and healthcare difficult to access, and families, like Yang’s, often separate. An estimated 61 million “left-behind children” only see their parents once a year during paid time-off for the Chinese New Year.
“Because we have to spend four days on the road, ” Liu said, “the only time we could get two weeks off is during the Chinese New Year. That’s when we can go home.”
Yang left his rural home in Sichuan, China, at the age of 20 in 1997 and became one of 287 million Chinese migrant workers who moved across country for a better life. After dropping out of high school, he became a farmer, just like his parents. Then one day, his uncle gave him the opportunity to work at an urban clothing factory in Shenzhen.
“If I raise a pig in our home village, I’d have to wait for six months before I can sell it to make money. There’s no immediate income,” Yang said. “In Shenzhen, we get paid every month.”
Today, Yang and his wife Liu are among nearly 8 million migrants living in Shenzhen, a major financial center in China that links Hong Kong to its mainland. There, two thirds of the population live in the city without residency registration, which prevents them from getting the same level of healthcare, education, and social security as urban residents.
When Yang and Liu’s kids were born, the young couple had full time jobs and lived in a company dorm room too small to raise their children. The living arrangements, coupled with other challenges of city life, forced Yang and Liu to leave both children as infants back in their old village with grandparents, thousands of miles away. The two kids are now 9 and 15 years old.
VICE News followed the couple on a 30-hour train ride from Shenzhen to their home in Sichuan for their yearly family reunion.
This special episode originally aired on March 1, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.