By Luo Yu
Illustration by Robert Wiggin
The theme of the spring festival has always remained the same for Chinese people. It's the world's largest annual migration where millions travel from their workplace back to their hometown for family reunion; it's when IT giants brandish their swords in the war of digital 'red envelopes' to further penetrate the online payment industry, and it's also the time many go on an overseas trip, spending quality time with their loved ones on la isla bonita.
Statistics from Bloomberg last year showed that the Chinese spent twice as much over the Chinese New Year holiday week than Americans spent on Thanksgiving and Black Friday combined. According to China's Ministry of Commerce, sales from retail and catering sectors hit 75.4 billion yuan (11.5 billion dollars) from Feb. 7th to 13th, an increase of 11.2% year on year.
Meanwhile, China's e-commerce giant Alibaba says that compared with last year, orders made from Feb. 8th to 11th on its various platforms more than doubled, and 2.1 billion items were sold from January 17th to 21st, the time period for households to prepare 'nian huo', or goods for the lunar new year. This paints a vivid picture of where Chinese families spent their money, helping to demonstrate drastic differences among first, second and third tier cities when it comes to consumption. Residents in metropolitan regions spend a lot of money on leisure and recreation, such as hotels, trips, tickets, and performances, whilst food takes up a larger portion in second tier cities and clothes are the most popular choice in third tier cities.
Everybody seems cheerful during the holiday, with money circulating and people migrating from one place to another. Just like the fact that there are different consumption patterns amongst different areas based on their level of affluence, migration does vary from one group of people to another as well. According to the Ministry of Transport, around 80% of the trips were for visiting friends and relatives and 10% sight-seeing. And of this 10%, roughly one fifth were outbound trips. It might be over-generalizing the real picture, but let's do it for the sake of the analysis. The vast majority return to their rural hometowns for new year gatherings, whereas more people from the middle class are willing to have a tour either in China or abroad.
For one thing, we see the happy side of the migration. The overseas trips are about to set a new record despite the sluggish Chinese economy, a signpost of changing mindsets of Chinese consumers. An estimated 6 million outbound trips have been made during the spring festival holidays according to Ctrip, China's largest online travel agency, a striking 100% increase over the previous year.
The logic behind this is quite simple. On one side, people want to escape from the insane migration. Trust me, if you are one of those 176,000 people that have been stranded in Guangzhou Railway Station due to delays caused by extreme weather conditions, you would probably think the same way.
On the flip side, the top three tourist destinations for Chinese are Thailand, Japan and South Korea and most of the favored places are located in Asia, including Taiwan. For lower middle class people who are price sensitive, these places are naturally their best choice, since there is not much difference in expenditure along the journey and these destinations are much less crowded than their domestic counterparts, thus bringing them a better traveling experience. In a similar vein, Chinese tourists, dubbed as 'walking wallets' by some western media outlets, are more rational than before, changing from overspending on luxury goods and lavish entertainment to cheaper stuff with good quality. For instance, Japanese media have found that Chinese tourists who flock to Japan are buying fewer toilet seats but more thermos cups.
It's also worth noting that theme tours are in demand. People head to South Korea or Europe to undergo a full medical check-up, and couples fly to Maldives or Bali for their pre-wedding photos. Of course, you may gain some unparalleled and memorable experience in Japan, enjoying hot springs on a wintry, snowy morning.
Personally speaking, this year my family went to Saipan to celebrate the new year, where I appreciated the grandeur of the beautiful Pacific Ocean in a lovely resort filled with Chinese tourists. We enjoyed celebratory Chinese buffets and sang Chinese songs and my parents could speak Chinese at nearly every restaurant and local store, which almost duped me into thinking we were in China, not on an U.S. island. Overall, it was an exciting and fun trip.
Alas, everything was not hunky dory, and every family was not as lucky as mine. The hottest topic during the Spring Festival this year was that a woman from Shanghai dumped her boyfriend after she saw the not-so-pleasant Chinese New Year meal prepared by her boyfriend's family in a rural village.
Ostensibly, the public has condemned the 27-year-old woman for being impolite and materialistic to dump her boyfriend just because his family is not well-off. But let's take it one step further. Why couldn't the dinner elaborately cooked by the capable and handsome young man's family meet the lowest standards set by the average-looking woman from Shanghai? Does the widening gap between the rich and the poor also indicate that there is something fundamentally wrong with China's economic development after the reform and opening up policy has been put in place for more than 30 years? Is it becoming more difficult for a villager to change their social status through relentless ambition and hard work nowadays?
It seems that there is still a long way to go before we can see a 'well-off migration', an essential component of a well-off society, in which a happy and smooth migration during the spring festival means a lot to every individual, no matter where their destination is.
I hope that fewer hard-working people who are bread-winners of the family will be trapped in the railway station, as infrastructure improves not by stopgap measures but through comprehensive urban planning.
I hope that more people are willing to have a long vacation at home or abroad, as people have more disposable income and feel more secure about the future.
I hope that people from rural and urban areas can wed joyfully, while farmers can shake off poverty and will never be looked down upon as a less-privileged group by city dwellers.
Last but not least, as an enterprising, hard-working and intelligent young man, I hope that love will not have to endure so many harsh tests and humble food can never wreck my relationship, as higher living standards can pretty much guarantee that people from different social standings across the country live with affluence, dignity and respect.
And that I could proudly say, I was born and raised in a remote region some 3,000 kilometers from Beijing. It used to be a poverty-stricken area, but now people are much better-off.
And that I don't ever have to worry about my girlfriend breaking up with me one day, just because I come from a poor family that can only serve her humble dishes.