China's Lunar New Year transportation rush appears to have tailed off somewhat amid growing economic gloom, according to journalists and passengers traveling home to welcome in the Year of the Pig with their families.
Crowds at Guangzhou Railway Station were sparse by Chinese standards this week, with many migrant workers having gone home at least a month ago as businesses close their doors amid an ongoing trade war with the U.S., passengers told RFA.
A passenger who shot footage of the station, which in previous years has been overwhelmed with passengers heading home ahead of the celebration, said he saw the marked change as a symptom of an economic downturn.
A railways ministry employee who gave only his surname Wang said official figures were an unreliable gauge of passenger volume, but that online booking systems could give a better picture.
An investigation of the online railway ticket booking website carried out by RFA on Tuesday found available tickets on the busiest and most popular routes linking Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, as well as Sichuan province and Chongqing in the southwest.
Railway and airline ticket sales data is confidential in China, so hard evidence of the apparent drop in passenger numbers was hard to obtain.
Repeated calls to the Guangdong Railways Bureau and the China Railway Corp. rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
According to reports in the official media, which is tightly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the sudden reduction in the volume of passengers, which have numbered 700 million over the holiday period in previous years, is the result of online booking systems reducing the need to stand in line.
Wave of layoffs
But a Guangzhou-based journalist who gave only his surname Luo said that the Pearl River Delta industrial region has been hit by a wave of layoffs, meaning that many migrant workers have already gone back to their hometowns well in advance of the festival.
"A lot of people went home one or two months ago, and a lot of companies in Guangzhou have shut up shop," Luo said. "Public transportation is relatively deserted around the country this year."
"Economic reasons are behind this, and the government has been telling people to go back home," he said.
In Sichuan provincial capital Chengdu, migrant workers are increasingly being squeezed between a reduced income on the one hand and soaring fresh food prices on the other, he said.
"The economic situation is very serious, and there is no industry that isn't running into difficulties," Luo said. "A lot of industries are laying people off and reducing their new-year bonuses, so nobody has any money to spend."
"Things are really bad, economically. Prices of fresh vegetables and meat, but especially vegetables, are skyrocketing, to more than 20 yuan ($3.30) per pound, when they are usually five, six, seven or eight yuan per pound," he said. "This year, the prices rose earlier and higher than in previous years."
A migrant worker surnamed Peng from the central province of Hunan, who is newly returned from the southern province of Guangdong, said migrant workers largely depend on full order books to get by, relying on overtime pay to make up any shortfall.
While the average basic monthly wage ranges from 1,300-1,800 yuan, workers can typically make around 4,000 yuan a month if they work overtime, he said.
"But if they're not getting that many orders, they won't ask you to work overtime," Peng said. "You can only make 1,000 or 2,000 yuan working an eight-hour day."
"It's not that easy for them to recruit, because the salaries are too low, and nobody wants the jobs," he said. "If wages are too high ... it cuts into companies' profit margins and they might not be able to keep going."
Breadwinners for families
Many migrant workers are the main breadwinner for several family members and may need to bring in up to 9,000 yuan a month to make ends meet, Peng said.
"Even I have nothing left over to save at the end of the year, and my salary's pretty good," he said. "I'm running my own [business] with a few friends now; we earn a bit more money but we have to stay in rented single rooms; if things were a bit better we could afford a one-bed apartment."
"Things are very difficult, but what can you do?" Peng said. "I'm the only person working in a family of seven."
A journalist surnamed Chen told RFA that her news organization has been trying to track the extent of the reduction in traveler numbers this year.
"I made a short film following a guy who works as a takeout delivery person in Nanjing, and who was going home for New Year," Chen said. "He went through Anhui in the direction of Henan, all places with a large concentration of migrant workers."
"There were people everywhere, with not even standing room, and the dining car was full of people trying to buy tickets because they hadn't been able to get them beforehand," she said.
But she said the subject of her film had also seen his income fall in recent months, to around 50 percent of its previous level.
Recent figures released by the Ministry of Transportation showed that more than 67 million passengers took to China's railways, roads, waterways and skies on Jan. 21, an increase of 1.7 percent on the same period last year.
Railway passenger volumes rose by around 20 percent on that day compared with the same period last year, while travelers on waterways and the road network clocked a downward trend.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.