Another year of restricted travel for China

Beijing urging people to avoid trips home for CNY reunion as it sticks to zero-Covid policy

Madam Yuan Jiahui, an insurance agent, will once again spend Chinese New Year apart from her extended family.

Travel restrictions imposed by her husband's employer and children's school mean that they could be penalised for having a family member who has travelled out of Beijing.

"I don't want to affect their work and schooling, so it's a sacrifice I have to make, even though my parents live just two hours away from Beijing," Madam Yuan, 51, told The Straits Times. "I haven't seen them in almost three years."

As China moves into its third year of the pandemic, it is firmly sticking to its zero-Covid-19 policy, ordering lockdowns and mass testing in a bid to completely eliminate the coronavirus.

With the Chinese New Year travel season fast approaching, the government is actively discouraging people from travelling back to their home towns for reunions.

While some have bristled at the seemingly never-ending restrictions, most are resigned to these being a way of life, while transport operators are bracing themselves for another year of slimmer takings.

This year, the holiday travel season - known as the world's largest human migration - will last 40 days between Jan 17 and Feb 25. The first day of Chinese New Year this year falls on Feb 1.

Ticket sales for buses and trains started on Jan 3 but have been met with lukewarm reception, particular for those leaving Beijing.

As China battles its largest Covid-19 outbreak since the initial flare-up in Wuhan, Hubei province, companies are discouraging unnecessary travel in case staff get caught up in sudden lockdowns or worse, fall sick.

China's commitment to a zero-Covid-19 policy means that anyone deemed a close contact, or even to have visited a high-or medium-risk area, can face quarantine in a centralised facility.

With Beijing set to host the Winter Olympics, which starts on Feb 4, the capital is on high alert, making it mandatory for anyone entering the city to undergo Covid-19 testing and allowing only fully vaccinated individuals in for certain events.

According to a government notice issued last Thursday, travel operators have been reminded to enforce mandatory mask wearing on public transport, while tourist sites have been told to restrict the number of daily visitors.

Private driver Hu Wei, 46, who manages a fleet of cars and minivans, said bookings are down by about 30 per cent this year.

"Previously, we will be fully booked a month before the Spring Festival, but this year, everyone wants to wait and see if the situation improves," he said.

But the restrictions are starting to wear on some, including Madam Yuan, whose elderly parents live in neighbouring Hebei province.

"They're village people who don't like the city, so going to visit them is the only way," she said.

"Yet, if I go, my husband and children might get penalised. But all these measures, what is the purpose and when will they end?"

In other cities such as Wuhan, restrictions are more relaxed.

Madam Wang Jing, who runs a Cantonese restaurant in the central Chinese city, has already bought her ticket back to her home town.

"There's nothing stopping me from leaving or coming back - of course I want to spend time with my family," said the 67-year-old Guangzhou native.

"I'm already so old, what's there to be afraid of?"

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2022, with the headline Another year of restricted travel for China. Subscribe