Chinese New Year Plays Out Differently For The Haves And Have-Nots

Feb 16, 2018
Originally published on February 16, 2018 2:22 pm

Friday marks the start of the Lunar New Year, which Chinese around the world are ringing in with the weeklong Spring Festival.

The way people celebrate — or choose not to celebrate — reflects the divide between the haves and the have-nots in the world's second-largest economy.

Here are a few points to consider:

It's a time to visit family. Family reunions are a tradition of Chinese New Year. For many of the country's 287 million rural migrants working in Chinese cities, far from their own villages, the holiday might be the one chance a year to return home. The movement of people during this celebration, called Chunyun (translated as "Spring Festival Transportation") is the largest human migration on earth. An estimated 2.98 billion trips are expected to be made using public transportation between Feb. 1 and March 12.

Major railway stations in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are packed. People who can afford it travel by high-speed bullet train; China has the world's longest bullet train (15,534 miles). But, of course, one must pay a price: For example, it costs the equivalent of about $150 to travel the 1,400 miles and 11 hours from the Eastern metropolis of Shanghai to the city of Kunming in southwest China. It would take 37 hours on a regular, less expensive — about $45 — train. But the bullet train is still cheaper than flying home, which would cost about $350.

But some people are opting out. Not everyone goes home for the Chinese New Year celebration, and not only because of the stress of traveling. For some, the cost of transportation is a reason not to go. And then there's the cost of gift giving. When migrant workers return home for Spring Festival, the custom is to hand out cash in red envelopes (it's a lucky color) to parents and other family members. A 2016 survey showed that half of the respondents spent more than $800 on gifts during the Chinese New Year.

And staying put has its benefits. Reportedly, millions of migrant workers earn double or even triple pay for the official holiday week — this year from Feb. 15-21.

Meanwhile, many wealthy Chinese are starting a new tradition: flying overseas for the holiday. The National Tourism Bureau and online travel agency International Ltd. estimate that 6.5 million Chinese will travel abroad during the seven-day holiday.

You might have to give cash gifts even if you don't go home. In 2014, WeChat — the most popular Chinese all-in-one app that claims 902 million daily users — launched a program allowing people to send friends red envelopes with a designated amount of money through its mobile payment service. Users can move the money to their linked bank cards.

Gifters can also send an envelope to a group chat: The system will randomly assign different amounts to different packets. Friends need to stay alert and grab one before it's gone. WeChat reported that some 46 billion red envelopes were sent in five days during the Spring Festival last year, a 43 percent jump from 2016.

Catering is picking up steam. Enjoying a New Year's Eve feast with family is a major tradition of the Chinese New Year celebration. But cooking for a big family and doing dishes afterward can be quite a hassle. Now, on-demand food delivery services could reshape the Chinese tradition of dining during the Spring Festival, for those who can afford it.

In recent years, some Chinese have started to book a New Year's Eve dinner online — and have it delivered to their table. While delivery can be low-cost, and sometimes even free, ordering a precooked meal of dumplings, say, is not an option for the country's many poor citizens. Meituan-Dianping is the biggest online delivery service in China, with more than 13 million delivery orders per day. To keep the business running, and workers working, the company says it will treat its delivery team with Spring Festival dinners. Another service, Eleme, will also deliver through the holiday.

Money isn't the only influence on the way people celebrate. Some singletons prefer not returning home, as parents and relatives are known to focus on their single status — and can be desperate to set them up on blind dates.

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