March

New Year’s in China means a mass mi­gra­tion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FRONT PAGE - By Me­gan K. Stack and Bar­bara Demick

LILOUCUN, China — Li Guangqiang rises early and pulls on his sharpest city clothes: dark jeans fash­ion­ably dis­tressed, puffy down coat, black pouch slung over one shoul­der. An out­fit care­fully cho­sen to an­nounce: I am not a farmer or a villager. Not any­more.

Li’s jour­ney will be long, and he has no time to lose. Head­ing out into the dry, dirty cold of a Bei­jing win­ter, he rolls his suit­case along frozen canals the shade of cur­dled milk, through the war­ren of al­ley­ways where he and other mi­grants sleep in makeshift shel­ters of con­crete block walls and cor­ru­gated tin roofs.

When the hol­i­days are over, when he makes his way back to work on the con­struc­tion of the new Microsoft site, his home will be gone, swept aside in boom­ing Bei­jing’s tire­less bouts of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. But he’s not think­ing about that now, be­cause these are the dy­ing days of the old lu­nar year.

To­day Li will go home.

Fig­ures loom out of the dark­ness and make their way up the worn steps of the bus sta­tion, lug­ging booty for sel­dom-seen fam­i­lies: gifts of clothes and food wrapped in aus­pi­cious red to ring in the Year of the Rab­bit, boxes of cheap toys, sacks of grain hefted on broad shoul­ders. Li is one of many now.

This is the world’s largest hu­man mi­gra­tion: Ev­ery year, mil­lions of work­ers flee the big cities and in­dus­trial hubs en masse and re­trace their steps to their home vil­lages.

These pre­cious days are the most ea­gerly awaited of the year: a rare chance for rest, and the com­ing to­gether of fam­i­lies painfully split apart by eco­nomic ne­ces­sity. Self-con­scious spouses are re­united. Chil­dren peer shyly at par­ents they haven’t seen in a year. Men who are mocked and ex­ploited in the slick cities puff out their chests and strut, get drunk on rice wine and lav­ish their hard-won cash on their fam­i­lies.

Many of the work­ers sleep out­side train sta­tions for days to get tick­ets, then stand packed tight as cat­tle in train car­riages. Li opts for the rel­a­tive com­fort of the bus for the 12-hour trip to his vil­lage, about 700 kilo­me­tres south of Bei­jing in Shan­dong prov­ince.

In the drowsy din of the bus sta­tion, Li’s eyes dart anx­iously from gate to gate, but he tries hard to ap­pear non­cha­lant. The 38-year-old has been mak­ing the jour­ney for 16 years, and tries to adopt the swag­ger of the big city.

“I used to get very ex­cited,” he says, shrug­ging, “but now I go back and forth ev­ery year.”

Li’s bus is called, and he joins the crowd surg­ing through the gate. They toss bags into the belly of the bus, scram­ble aboard and el­bow their way down the aisles. Ev­ery seat is full, and al­most all of the pas­sen­gers are men.

The bus shud­ders to life and pulls onto the road. It rum­bles south past shop­ping malls, gas sta­tions, con­struc­tion sites. The bus is filled with the click of cell­phone cam­eras tak­ing part­ing shots as Bei­jing falls away. “Turn on the heat,” the pas­sen­gers beg. “No,” the driver replies. “It’s a waste of fuel.” The pas­sen­gers do not in­sist. They’re used to shabby con­di­tions and phys­i­cal dis­com­fort. Soon the bus is rocked by snores and coughs. Li doesn’t sleep; he just waits.

The land­scape turns to moun­tains and thicker trees, then flat­tens out again into fields as dark­ness falls.

The county seat is gaudy with lights, the mar­ket stalls and su­per­mar­kets packed with shop­pers from sur­round­ing vil­lages who’ve come to town to stock up on hol­i­day del­i­ca­cies and dec­o­ra­tions. Ev­ery­body is a lit­tle more flush with cash at this time of the year.

Li is the first one off the bus. Early fire­works burst into pin­wheels in the sky.

He snatches up his bag, pushes past the taxi driv­ers and finds his cousin wait­ing for him in a ram­shackle sil­ver van. They smile shyly, light cig­a­rettes. They don’t em­brace.

The van pulls out of the city, back into the dark­ness of a coun­try night, on rough roads that slice through the win­ter-dry fields of wheat and corn.

Li’s house looks dark and aban­doned. Last year’s faded wishes for pros­per­ity and hap­pi­ness, printed on red pa­per gone to pink, still cling to the metal gate.

He makes his way through the court­yard and onto the con­crete floor of the sitting room, bonecold and bathed in thin sul­fur light. A tele­vi­sion flashes and flick­ers be­hind a cot­ton cur­tain. “Hey, come out here,” Li shouts gruffly. Duck­ing her head bash­fully, his wife sweeps slowly through the cur­tains. She is only 39 but she looks older, much older, than her city-dwelling hus­band. She has pulled her hair neatly back from a face grown ruddy and chapped from the sun and wind. For her hus­band’s home­com­ing, she wears a padded cot­ton jacket printed with bright red swirls.

Li shoots his wife an im­pa­tient, un­read­able look. She stands at his side un­cer­tainly. Their 13-year-old son comes skit­ter­ing over the thresh­old from the yard. Both fa­ther and son seem em­bar­rassed to make eye con­tact, let alone touch; the boy stares at the floor and races in ner­vous cir­cles around his fa­ther.

But the un­easy mo­ment is bro­ken, di­luted in cries of wel­come as neigh­bours pour in to greet Li. He has made it home at last. No­body re­mem­bers just how Liloucun vil­lage came to be. There is a vague story, some­thing about how a group of Li men moved here 300 years ago in search of wider tracts of fer­tile land for farm­ing.

The name trans­lates as Li house vil­lage, and the men who live here to­day all bear the sur­name Li. The ex­act re­la­tions are lost to time, but the vil­lagers as­sume their blood is shared, and in­ter­mar­riage is for­bid­den. Men re­main in the vil­lage, choos­ing wives from else­where, and the vil­lage daugh­ters marry out.

To­day, Liloucun is home to 160 peo­ple, three

ROBERT GAU­THIER / LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

Thou­sands of trav­ellers jam Bei­jing’s rail­way sta­tion, all head­ing back to their homes in the coun­try for the hol­i­day.

Top, Li Guangqiang, cen­tre, is tak­ing the bus back

to his home vil­lage. Above, Li wres­tles with his 13-year-old son, Shen­shun. Right, Li’s wife, Sun Fengzhi, says life is hard with her hus­band away

work­ing in Bei­jing most of the time.

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