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Changes in China’s labour market can be observed through the Spring Festival travel rush in 2024.

The Lantern Festival fireworks have faded away, marking the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. During this period, it can be observed that more people returned home early to celebrate the New Year, there were fewer long-distance bus passengers, and many chose to drive themselves. The highways and country roads were congested, and tourist attractions and shopping malls were crowded. The 2024 Spring Festival travel season was the only holiday in the past four years that was not affected by the epidemic. As the world’s largest annual human migration, the changes in the structure of Spring Festival travel and the direction of population movement provide a window to observe the ebb and flow of the times, as well as the rise and fall of industries and cities.

In terms of the number of travelers, the 2024 Spring Festival travel rush is expected to see a total of over 9.2 billion cross-regional trips across all modes of transportation except for waterways. The railways, highways, and civil aviation have all reached new highs in terms of passenger volume. The railways are expected to transport 246 million passengers, a 24.1% increase compared to the same period in 2019. Highway passenger traffic is projected to reach 4.479 billion, a staggering 263.4% increase from 2019. Waterway transportation has decreased by 43.86% compared to 2019, while civil aviation has seen an 18.66% increase over the same period.

It is worth noting that both railway and civil aviation have experienced growth rates of around 20%, while the increase in highway passenger traffic is nearly three times higher, which seems somewhat exaggerated. In fact, at the end of January, the statistical criteria were adjusted, and the widely mentioned figure of 9 billion trips now includes a broader range of travel statistics.

Before the Spring Festival travel rush in 2023, only the operational passenger traffic volume of railways, highways, waterways, and civil aviation was included in the statistics. In the 2023 Spring Festival travel rush, the concept of personnel flow was introduced for the first time, incorporating the national highway passenger volume of small vehicles into the scope of the Spring Festival travel rush statistics. In the 2024 Spring Festival travel rush, the statistical scope was further expanded to include the personnel travel volume on ordinary national and provincial roads. The reason for this change is quite simple: no one is taking buses anymore.

According to the 2022 Transportation Statistics Bulletin, the definition of highway passenger transportation only includes traditional scheduled and chartered bus services, excluding taxis, public buses, and rental coaches. The private car ownership has surged, and the ongoing pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to buses and passenger stations. The authorities have specifically explained the reasons for the adjustment in calculation. From 2020 to 2023, the passenger volume during the Spring Festival transport season was 1.48 billion, 870 million, 1.06 billion, and 1.595 billion respectively. In the 2023 Spring Festival transport season, the highway passenger transportation has only recovered to less than 50% of the level in 2019. These three years have brought about significant changes. In 2021 alone, 42 passenger stations were closed in one province in Guangdong, and eight out of ten passenger stations in Beijing have either already closed or are planning to close. A wave of passenger station closures has swept through various provinces and cities nationwide, with Chengdu, Nantong in Shandong, and Shijiazhuang in Hainan experiencing closures. The situation is dire, with more than 2,800 second-tier or higher-level bus passenger stations nationwide struggling to cover their operating costs. Some routes have only single-digit passenger numbers during normal times.

According to reports from Interface, only about 20% of passenger transport stations for cars are barely breaking even by operating as commercial entities. The decline of passenger stations and buses during the Spring Festival marks the end of an era. Returning to the previous topic, if we exclude the passengers traveling by private cars on highways and national and provincial roads, the Spring Festival travel landscape takes on a different appearance. A report from Guojin Macro states that this year’s Spring Festival saw a significant increase in inter-regional travel, with the proportion of non-original prototype small passenger car travel on highways reaching 80%, a 15.5 percentage point increase from 2019. However, the volume of long-distance travelers has decreased by 43% compared to the same period in 2019.

In addition to the decrease in the volume of travelers, there is more evidence showing that people are traveling less. For example, when looking at the net outflow index, coastal and first-tier cities are decreasing while strong provinces in the central and western regions are increasing. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, as well as coastal areas, have been the primary destinations for people seeking work opportunities in other regions. During peak holiday seasons, a large number of people leave these cities, making them seem deserted. Before this year’s Spring Festival, although these major cities still have a high permanent population ranking nationwide, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing have seen decreases of 0.2%, 7.9%, and 10.3% respectively compared to 2013. Recently, there was news about the permanent population in the central urban areas of Beijing decreasing by over 2 million people in the past 7 years. All these factors can be considered together to understand the changing trends.

Meanwhile, from the 16th of the twelfth month to the 30th of the first month in the lunar calendar, central strong provincial capital cities represented by Hefei and Changsha have seen their net outflow index rise to the forefront nationwide, with a growth of 7.5% compared to the same period in 2023. Over the past two years, both Hefei and Changsha have had a significant online presence, with predominantly positive public opinion. Hefei can be considered a city famous for its industries, with a focus on panel chips, new energy industry chains, cultural industries including live streaming personalities like Xiao Yang and New Oriental. Changsha, on the other hand, is a popular tourist city, with the May 1st Square becoming a top destination for visitors. Thanks to years of regulation, housing prices in these cities are also relatively stable.

The migration in and out index of Zhengzhou and Chengdu is very stable, with a high proportion of internal migration within the province. Before the Spring Festival in 2024, 68.6% of the incoming population and 82.6% of the outgoing population in Zhengzhou came from within Henan province, such as Kaifeng and Xinxiang. Similarly, in Chengdu, 69.4% of the incoming population and 76.2% of the outgoing population came from within Sichuan province, mainly from Deyang and Meishan.

The decrease in long-distance travel can be attributed to two main reasons. Firstly, the migrant workers are getting older, and opportunities in the eastern regions are diminishing. The primary demographic for long-distance migration has always been individuals aged 16 to 59, mainly consisting of migrant workers. The number of migrant workers has reached 180 million, but as of 2022, a significant portion of them are over 50 years old and are no longer physically capable of working. Moreover, the key issue lies in the lack of job opportunities. According to international reports, in the first three quarters of 2023, there was a significant increase in the number of listed companies experiencing losses compared to 2019, with 562 additional companies facing losses. Most of these companies are located in the eastern regions, accounting for 65.7% of the total. The industries that suffered losses are mainly in manufacturing sectors such as computer equipment, rubber and plastics, and non-metallic products, which have traditionally been the largest employers.

Since 2023, the number of new urban jobs in eastern regions such as Shandong, Tianjin, Fujian, Jiangsu, and Beijing has significantly decreased compared to 2019. However, Anhui, Hubei, and Yunnan have seen an increase in new urban employment. The eastern regions are more impacted by exports and real estate, with coastal residents having the highest leverage ratio. The seemingly bright side often hides fragility, providing opportunities for the strong growth of central and western regions. For example, there is a trend of population aggregation in cities like Hefei and Changsha, the development of Zhengzhou and Chengdu, as well as the rise of provincial capitals like Wuhan and Xi’an. The dominance of single cities has led migrant workers to become returning hometown visitors, making a compromise between major cities and small towns.

In addition, these cities have brought about stronger consumption than before. For example, with the disappearance of Spring Festival buses and the surge in self-driving, another aspect is that the sales of cars in the central and western regions are increasing. In 2023, the sales of cars in Chengdu, Zhengzhou, Chongqing, and Wuhan have all exceeded 400,000 units, ranking among the top ten in the country. Zhengzhou has the largest increase, reaching 29.3%. The congestion index in these cities is also increasing. The changes in the way people travel during the Spring Festival and the distance of migration reflect the outside world like a mirror. It is very helpless, but it also shows that migrant workers are getting older. As a result, Henan, Anhui, Sichuan, and Hunan are slowly taking off the hat of being the “provinces with a large population” that they have worn for more than a decade in a somewhat absurd way, and are putting all their efforts into nurturing super cities. This process may continue for many years.

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