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Chinese are travelling to their home towns for the Lunar New Year, the country’s biggest family holiday, despite a government plea to stay where they are as Beijing tries to contain coronavirus outbreaks.
The holiday, which starts with Chinese New Year’s Eve on Monday, is usually the biggest annual movement of humanity.
Hundreds of millions of people who migrated for work return home to visit parents, spouses and children, while many of China's growing middle class also travel abroad.
About 260 million people have travelled in the 10 days since the holiday rush started on January 17, less than before the pandemic but up 46 per cent from last year, official data showed.
The government has forecast a total of 1.2 billion trips during the holiday season – up 36 per cent from a year ago.
“I know we are encouraged to spend the New Year in Beijing, but I haven’t been back home for three years,” said Wang Yilei, whose home town is Tangshan, in Hebei province, east of the capital.
“My parents are getting old and they are looking forward to seeing me.”
Beijing is tightening controls to contain coronavirus outbreaks ahead of next week’s opening of the Winter Olympics.
China’s infection numbers are modest compared with India, South Korea and some other countries.
But they challenge Beijing’s “zero tolerance” strategy that aims to control the spread of the virus by isolating every infected person.
Athletes, reporters and officials at the Winter Games are required to avoid contact with outsiders.
Of the 3,695 people who arrived from abroad for the Games, 106 have so far tested positive for the coronavirus. Two are athletes or team officials.
Authorities in Beijing have ordered mass testing for more than 2 million people in the capital’s Fengtai district following outbreaks there. Some families were ordered not to leave their homes.
Elsewhere, 1.2 million people in an area 100 kilometres south of Beijing were told to stay put this week.
The restrictions were imposed on Xiong’an New District, in Hebei, which is being developed as a possible site for ministries to relocate, after five cases were found in people who came from the capital, according to notices circulated online by residents. They said the controls would last seven days.
People who travel are required to show a negative result of a virus test within 48 hours before departure.
“We should go back home for the New Year as long as we can, if the local prevention policies allow us to,” said Wu Jinpeng, a university student travelling from the southern island of Hainan to his hometown near Beijing.
Some travellers face the prospect of being ordered into quarantine if they arrive from areas deemed at high risk of infection.
Travellers are tracked by “health code” software on smartphones that records where they go and the results of virus tests.
“I called the government hotline of my hometown and they said I can go back, as long as my health code is green. If I live in Fengtai district of Beijing then I can’t,” said Sun Jinle, a bank employee from Qinhuangdao, Hebei, east of Beijing.
“Luckily, I live in Tongzhou district”, which has no travel ban.