Passengers pack the main station of Ningbo, a port and trading hub in eastern China, during 2019’s Lunar New Year break. Photo: Asia Times

As China’s New Year approaches in February, and provincial authorities are trying to control coronavirus outbreaks from Hebei to Heilongjiang in the north, a push has started to curtail travel in the festive season.

The plan by provincial cadres, who are urging migrant workers to “remain in cities, stay in work,” has the dual aim of cutting transmissions of the virus and boosting the economy.

Provincial authorities are still fighting a protracted war to squash spikes in infections, more than two weeks after China was hit by arguably the biggest Covid-19 outbreak since early this year. 

The spread of the coronavirus in rural areas of the two backwater provinces of Hebei and Heilongjiang had been under the radar for weeks until the pathogen crept into cities and provincial capitals. This week the outbreaks have pushed China’s nationwide tally of daily new cases well above 100, a caseload unseen in the past nine months after Beijing lifted the lockdown on Wuhan, the initial focus of the pandemic. 

The National Health Commission (NHC) reported 103 fresh cases across the country in the past 24 hours to Friday morning, with another 119 carriers of the virus who did not show any telltale signs of infections under treatment.

Most of these patients and carriers were identified in repeated rounds of mass testing in Hebei, Heilongjiang and Jilin. China does not count asymptomatic carriers as confirmed cases, a practice that has long left the NHC open to criticism as the West continues to accuse China of soft-pedaling on the viral spread on the ground. 

The nation’s two largest urban centers of Shanghai and Beijing have also logged three and two new cases respectively.

A police officer walks inside the deserted central concourse of Shijiazhuang’s main train station. The capital city of Hebei province is in a Wuhan-like lockdown. Photo: China News Service

The NHC’s nationwide map tracking infections on Friday red-flagged Beijing’s Daxing district, home to the capital’s sprawling new airport, and two districts in Hebei’s provincial capital of Shijiazhuang as Covid high-risk areas where the strictest lockdowns and entry and exit bans apply.

Three other smaller cities across Hebei, Heilongjiang and Jilin are also in the no-go category. China is also mandating other provinces and municipalities share information and coordinate measures to curtail long-distance trips by migrant workers and others to avoid a nationwide travel rush in the run-up to the Chinese New Year in February. 

Passengers throng Shanghai’s Hongqiao Train Station during the typical travel rush in the run-up to the Chinese New Year, but trains and stations will fall quiet this year. Photo: Xinhua

The Chinese State Council’s Covid prevention and control task force on Wednesday updated its guidelines to request migrant workers planning to go home to the countryside to obtain negative test results before their trips or they risk being fined or detained.

The new rules stipulate that, after getting back to their rural homes, they will also undergo 14 days of “soft quarantine” with no interactions with anyone outside their families.

Police and auxiliary officers are some of the personnel being mobilized and dispatched to villages and towns to enforce “grid-by-grid” monitoring and to hunt for any rule breakers. 

These are the latest measures being rolled out to stem the virus from spilling into China’s vast rural areas, described as a “gaping hole” in China’s defense against the virus due to poorly-funded and managed disease control and healthcare systems in numerous villages and towns.  

Various provinces, either industrialized manufacturing powerhouses in the east or underdeveloped regions in central and western China that are sources of migrant labor, are also applying more testing and health screening to discourage people from traveling. 

Still, numerous migrant workers, undaunted by the extra rules and requirements, have been swamping hospitals and clinics in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and other major cities in southern Guangdong province since Thursday.

They are queuing up to get tested and can use their negative test reports to book train tickets home. The growing hoards have sparked fears of infections and local police are implementing crowd control measures.

More than 30 million workers from other parts of China are employed by factories in Guangdong and many are determined to go home in the Lunar New Year break as they do not have the luxury of taking compensation leave during the rest of the year in lieu of their worked holidays.

China’s Lunar New Year starts on February 12.

Anticipating the flow of people from Guangdong to the central and western provinces and their return trips may pose significant threats, Guangdong has reportedly asked railway operators and airlines like China Southern and Shenzhen Airlines to slash departures from Guangzhou and Shenzhen. They hope that when tickets are hard to come by, more will have to stay put.

Both carriers have canceled most flights to Beijing and Shijiazhuang. China Railway Corp’s Guangzhou branch has also rescheduled departures to make fewer seats available. 

Governments and employers in Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu and other coastal provinces are also doling out aid and incentives to lure workers to stay, with a whole range of giveaways, coupons and even cash handouts of up to thousands of yuan on offer. 

Foxconn employees operate on an assembly line at a Foxconn factory in Longhua, Shenzhen, China. Image: AFP

An employee with OEM giant Foxconn’s subsidiary in Shenzhen told Asia Times that on top of overtime subsidies, he would expect to get an additional allowance of 2,400 yuan (US$371) for working during the Chinese New Year break, as all assembly lines at the Shenzhen base will continue to churn out gadgets.

Foxconn is ramping up production across its Chinese bases to ship products to Apple and the like, as the shelter-in-place populations across the West order more tablets and other devices for entertainment and remote-working. 

The government of Yiwu, a bourgeoning trading hub of daily consumer goods in Zhejiang province, is dispensing shopping coupons of 500 yuan and free cellphone data plans of 20 gigabytes to every migrant worker staying there and not returning home.

Backed by the city’s big public coffers, an array of other perks and discounts designed to retain workers also include free rides on public transport, free admission to local tourist attractions as well as a lucky draw with prizes including luxury sedans and iPhones, according to local papers.

Xinhua noted in an op-ed that Beijing would unlikely order an outright ban on interprovincial travel and would rather let provincial authorities formulate pertinent measures to convince workers to stay and spend. 

“Other than keeping the virus at bay, local governments are facing another test to serve workers that choose to stay, ensure sufficient, fair overtime allowances and in the meantime boost the economy,” read the article. 

Despite fewer passengers and lower takings for the transport sector, the latest “remain in city, stay in work” drive is expected to accrue more growth momentum for the Chinese economy, with plants humming and coupons unleashing additional consumption. 

The Beijing-based Economic Observer newspaper predicts that GDP growth in January and February may gather further pace to hit as high as 7%. Riding an export bonanza, China’s economy expanded by 6.5% in the final quarter of 2020.   

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