The Lunar New Year is exactly two weeks away. So the annual travel season in China, essentially the largest annual human migration, is under way. Will it once again spread the coronavirus far and wide?
Many of China's 300 million migrant workers toil in rich coastal provinces. They head back to the poorer hinterland at Lunar New Year, often the only time in the year that they see their spouse or kids. Well-to-do Chinese increasingly take a holiday. Basically, all 1.4 billion citizens get a week off at the same time.
This time last year, Wuhan was belatedly locked down at the last minute before the holiday. But many people had already fled the centrally located city of 9.8 million, not least because there were rumors a lockdown was coming. Travel continued as normal around the rest of China, and overseas. The coronavirus quickly spread worldwide.
This year, various local governments have strict travel requirements in place. There will still be around 1.152 billion trips made over the long holiday, according to China's Ministry of Transport. But that is down 60% from 2019, when travel was as normal, and also down 20% from 2020, when many citizens had voluntarily decided to stay safely at home with word of the virus spreading as fast as the disease did.
There are still periodic flare-ups of the coronavirus in China, with the outskirts of Beijing particularly badly affected in the last few weeks. Some 22 million people were locked down. So the prospect of people making 28.8 million trips a day nationwide moving from work to their hometowns and back again remains cause for great concern.
Most Chinese big cities and provinces have some form of requirements for entry. China has divided the country into low-, medium- and high-risk areas. If you're low-risk, you'll generally need at least your mobile phone showing a "green health code" generated by tracking your movements through said phone. Forget personal privacy on that count, and of course you'll need to have a smartphone that can run the app.
Travelers from higher risk areas need to show a negative Covid-19 test, and often still have to quarantine at home or in a hotel for 14 days. Migrant workers say they can't bear the cost of paying for their own tests heading in either direction as well as any sort of hotel quarantine. There's a full list of travel restrictions in 31 locations here.
There's a bit of carrot along with the virus-testing stick. Officials in the city of Shanghai claim they plan to pay the phone and medical bills of workers who skip the annual journey home, according to The New York Times. Other cities are offering gift baskets, shopping discounts and activities for people who stay put. Beijing has encouraged companies to pay workers overtime and keep them busy over the holiday, a time when China basically shuts down.
The efforts do seem to be working so far. Passenger traffic out of Beijing Capital International Airport yesterday was only 13.7% of the volume seen on the first day of the travel rush last year, according to the Global Times, down to 37,600 travels from the 273,600 in 2020. China-wide there will be an estimated 39.0 million plane trips and 296 million train trips this holiday.
However, there's a fear that many Chinese people are overconfident that Covid-19 has been conquered, having bought into the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda about the great victory against the virus. Much of daily life across China is back to normal. If that's true, the travel estimates from the transport ministry will likely be on the low side.
The virus is not, however, stamped out. Chinese health officials today report 52 new cases at last count, and 54 the day before. The official figures don't include asymptomatic Covid cases, either, which makes absolutely no sense to me. There were 42 of those. Those sparks can still light a flashfire.
I always have to catch myself when writing stories about "Chinese New Year." Most folks call it that here in Hong Kong when they're speaking English. But "Lunar New Year" is more accurate, since the Chinese haven't cornered the market on the festival. It's celebrated as Tet in Vietnam and Seollal in Korea.
It's the Spring Festival or Chun Jie in China, marking the end of winter. Somehow the lunar system is remarkably accurate, and you normally have some of the coldest days of winter running up to the holiday, after which it invariably turns warm.
This year, the moon dictates the New Year will fall on February 12. Festivities continue through the Lantern Festival 15 days after the New Year. Chun Yun, the 40-day high-traffic travel period, starts 15 days before the holiday (yesterday, in other words), and continues for 10 days after it, as people straggle back to work if they took extended time off.
This last year has been the Year of the Rat under the Chinese zodiac. We are moving into the Year of the Ox. The two have history. Legend has it that the Jade Emperor set a Great Race in motion among the earth's animals to get to the Heavenly Gate at his palace. Since it was his birthday, the emperor said he'd name the years in the order that the animals arrived.
When they came to a river, quick-witted Rat and Cat jumped onto diligent Ox's back. Ox didn't mind, but at the other side, Rat pushed Cat into the water, jumped off the Ox and finished first. Hence the Rat Year is the first to start a new 12-year cycle, with Ox second. There is also no Cat in the zodiac (although there is a Tiger), and non-tiger "normal" cats hate water!
We can only hope the Ox does his sturdy job and affords us some stability in the year ahead. Of course plenty of stock watchers note the potential for puns about bull markets.
There's no bear in the Chinese zodiac, either. The "bear market" comes, according to Merriam-Webster, from the adage that it is not wise to "sell the bear's skin before one has caught the bear." Shorting, in other words. Hedge funds trapped in the gamma squeeze currently battering their short positions in GameStop (GME) , and other companies, may also be keen for this year to end.
The "bear" term came first, and the "bull" was seen as a fitting counterpart, not least because bulls were sometimes used in dog baiting, as were bears. There's little evidence to support a competing explanation that bulls sweep their horns up, while bears swipe their paws down.
Stocks remain close to records in many markets globally, and priced to assume victory over the coronavirus as the world successfully gets vaccinated. That's an extremely optimistic viewpoint.
Nomura says movements in Chinese markets may be more significant than those of U.S. equity markets, which the brokerage thinks have just hit a speedbump the last few days. For China, however, buying of China-linked stocks "has broken away from fundamentals, and the resulting pressure for a snapback is building like magma beneath the surface."
The Chinese stock markets have stagnated, but trend-following money continues to pour in, Nomura laments. Will those flows correct as we hit the Lunar New Year? It is likely we will see selling pressure as investors lock in gains on long positions before they take off to spend time with their families. There could be bumpy days for the markets and public health alike in China.