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Take the slow train in China

for official In Xi Jinping’s China, keeping trains running on time is more than a metaphor. As Xi Jinping enters his second decade as supreme leader, his version of draconian, paternalistic Communist Party rule seeks to gain more legitimacy by delivering customer-friendly public services through modern infrastructure. The promise of order and efficiency, at least as far as China’s railways are concerned, has been delivered.

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The Ministry of Transport predicts that from January 7 to February 15, 2.1 billion Chinese people will go home for the New Year. Some will be urban professionals, zipping between cities on high-speed trains.many people will ride more slowly green leather train Or “green trains,” crammed into crowded carriages or sat on corridor floors, across China on journeys that can last 40 hours or more. Millions of people have not seen their hometowns or villages — and in many cases, their children and the elderly parents who care for them — for two years because of pandemic travel restrictions.

On January 16 alone, China’s rail network carried 8.3 million passengers. Among them was Chaguan, who bought a station ticket for the first day of a two-day train journey from Guangzhou in the south to Urumqi in remote western Xinjiang. Chatting at Guangzhou Station before dawn, or shuttling through southern China for a long time, older passengers recalled the chaos of the Spring Festival travel rush 30 years ago. Passengers would climb into trains through the windows, and the trains would be so crowded that people would sleep on luggage racks or stand in toilets. Even 20 years ago, New Year’s trains were piled high with fruit, cooking oil, clothes and bedding, which workers felt compelled to take home.

Today, the obsession is less intense. As China’s workforce dwindles and it becomes increasingly difficult to find and retain workers, many employers are allowing more flexibility on departure and return dates. Items ordered online can be delivered to villages year-round, so there is less need for physical New Year’s gifts (kid’s cash red envelopes are still a must). More and more migrant workers are taking shared private cars to go home. The train network is developing rapidly. The station is busy, but not crowded. Passengers line up to board the train, and children and the infirm have priority in line. In some countries, prosecutors must pay bribes to board trains or planes. On the Guangzhou-Urumqi route, there was no sign of corruption. Passengers without seats line up at the conductor’s office on the bus, ID cards in hand, and are assigned to open slots between certain stops as passengers disembark. An otherwise cheerful holiday vibe pervades, like a well-organized school trip. Passengers joked that food vendors should give away free festive meals. A young waitress wearing a jacket with brass buttons told a colleague struggling in a crowded aisle that he was to blame for obesity.

Yet amidst all this efficient service, old divisions of class, wealth, race, and gender can also be heard. Because the green train rolls through every aspect of life in a place that remains brutally unequal in China. Some discrimination is unconscious. One passenger jokingly asked the crew in Urumqi if they were from Xinjiang, or Uyghurs. “Do I look like a minority?” the Han waitress laughed.

Decades of economic growth have created winners and losers. Both were found on the train.Mr. Zhuang, a truck driver for e-commerce and logistics giant JD.com, is traveling with his wife to the northwestern province of Shaanxi to visit their son, a university lecturer, who is about to start a business PhMan overseas. Mr Zhuang called his family’s first-hand experience of the rise of the Chinese state “life-changing”. Asked about the outlook for the economy after the pandemic, he praised China’s leaders for “treating people like fathers treat their children, and they want everyone to live a well-off life”.

Nearby, Mr Xing, from the central province of Henan, dozed off with graying hair. He is a security guard in Guangzhou who cannot work in construction because he is too old. Overall, China’s rural-urban migrant population is aging. In 2021, the average age of migrant workers in China will rise from 34 in 2008 to 41.7. A growing number of young people are shunning factory jobs far from home. Many older workers without adequate pensions toiled past the statutory retirement age. Mr Xing lives in a prefab dormitory 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 10- and 16-year-old children “kept calling to say we haven’t been home for a year.” Like many migrant children, they did not have a household registration book for urban high schools, so they returned to Henan. Mr. Xing hopes to catch up with his daughter during the holidays and maybe take her to an amusement park. But she wants to be a teacher and has a lot of homework. Reflecting on being away from his children for so many years, he lamented: “I don’t know how to describe that feeling.”

Collective Progress, Individual Anxiety

Ms. Li, a street cleaner in Guangzhou, sits on a bucket next to a train door. A 56-year-old widow, she is six years behind the retirement age for female blue-collar workers, but violates China’s penny-pinching, onerous welfare rules. Years of factory work didn’t produce big-city pensions. Her basic health insurance is only available at her rural home. Working 12 hours a day with no days off for a month, she earned 4,000 yuan ($590). When covid quarantine stopped work, she was supposed to be paid by law, but her employer, a subcontractor, refused. Without money, “you’re nothing,” she said. Her son is a factory worker and has no money to buy the house and car needed to get married. With so much pressure, young people “don’t want kids, they don’t want marriage,” she lamented. Her parents and in-laws had just come down with COVID-19, so she hoped her presence wouldn’t endanger them. She was eager to visit because, at their age, “every new year counts.” Other passengers echoed her statement about the enormous pressures in life. The gleaming infrastructure is impressive. Building a fair and happy society is harder.

Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
Many Chinese villagers appear ready to shake off covid-19 (January 12)
China’s Communist Party plans to avoid zero covid reckoning (January 5)
The politics of Xi Jinping’s covid retreat (December 15)

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