The "Spring Festival rush" is a scene unique to China. The once-in-a-year mass migration of humans is a rarity in the world given its scale and geographical scope. Every year the central government and different departments of local governments make planning and coordination arrangements in advance so the process can be said to be smooth in general, providing protection for people when they embark on their journeys. But "man proposes, god disposes", as the saying goes. Contingencies are things difficult to predict. The pneumonia cases in Wuhan this year, in particular, remain uncertain, making a high level of vigilance particularly necessary.
The "Spring Festival rush", which will last for forty days, began on the tenth of this month. It is expected to involve three billion people this year, who will travel in all directions using all sorts of transportation. It is expected that the overall number of passengers in this year's Spring Festival rush will only go up slightly. However, following a trend that began several years ago, the number of passengers travelling by train and plane will rise by around 8% each. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the High speed railway system was further extended by 5,474 kilometres last year, so the number of passengers who can afford higher ticket prices will increase.
The Spring Festival rush is a barometer of the country's economic performance. In the heyday of the manufacturing industry, the direction of the migration was from the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtse River Delta to western provinces such as Sichuan before the holiday, and a rush back to the coastal cities after the holiday. In recent years, however, the number of people returning to Guangdong has been falling constantly, showing the trends of the labour market. The reason why the number of passengers increased sharply at the beginning of this year's rush is that the economy is under considerable downward pressure and there is a pervading atmosphere of a downturn for businesses. Another explanation is that owners of small businesses and workers are returning home earlier to spend the Chinese New Year with their families. Look at the flow of train tickets sold and one can see that there are still some for trains bound for big cities, showing that many workers might choose to resign and return to their hometowns and will put off returning to cities to find jobs temporarily.
Though there is a hint of an economic downturn, the number of people going abroad for vacations has been increasing constantly in recent years. This shows that some of the well-to-do people are getting even richer. As the protests in France remain incessant, the relationship between China and the US is strained and the Middle East is haunted by the spectre of war, it is believed that the number of tourists travelling to Europe and America will fall, while there will be a sharp increase in tourists travelling to neighbouring countries such as Japan, South Korea and South Eastern countries. Domestic travel will also be under immense pressure.
In this year's Spring Festival rush, one small detail can particularly easily lead to problems. Since 8th December, a number of cases of mysterious pneumonia in Wuhan have appeared. 41 cases have accumulated. Six patients have recovered and left hospital, while one has died. Seven people who remain hospitalised belong to serious cases. As for Hong Kong, there have been 67 suspicious cases in which all patients had been to Wuhan previously. After what happened during the 2003 SARS epidemic, people all over the world remain easily frightened by infectious diseases of unknown causes.
No part of the world has any experience in managing the Spring Festival rush. Ensuring its safety and smoothness will put the collective wisdom of the Chinese people to the test. The responsibility lies with officials' abilities to coordinate and handle contingencies. No one can lower their guard.