MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Lunar New Year in China is one of the few times when millions of people go home and see family. Last February, COVID cut many of those trips short, so many in China, including NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng, were hoping this year would be different. Well, it's not.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Chunjie, or Spring Festival, is the weeks-long celebration for Lunar New Year, which is usually in February. It was a month once filled with firecrackers and travel. People made some 3 billion trips during 2019's Spring Festival, a vast human migration that nearly paralyzed China's transportation systems.
So last Lunar New Year, when the coronavirus pandemic exploded in China, what was eeriest to me was the quiet. More than a billion people just stayed home. And this year is likely to be more of the same. My local produce market is usually empty by late January, the fruit sellers and tofu-makers having left Beijing well in advance. Not this year. Government-sponsored surveys show about three-fourths of Chinese citizens will not travel home.
A steady stream of customers keeps this temperature monitor at the market entrance beeping.
PANDA: (Speaking Chinese).
FENG: Everywhere in the countryside is sealed off, explains my local butcher, who goes by Xiong Mao, or Panda. Beijing wants anyone traveling to rural areas to do a COVID test when they return to a city, plus do a seven-day quarantine. China's villages are also in overdrive. Many have gone into semi-lockdowns already, so Panda's native village in Jiangxi province wouldn't even let them in.
Panda is a stocky, unsentimental man, but he listens to his grandparents.
PANDA: (Through interpreter) I don't want to create any trouble for the country. If you're found to have COVID, then your entire life is over. My grandparents told me best not to leave Beijing.
FENG: So he, like many of China's migrant workers, are staying put. All these restrictions come after about 2,000 new COVID cases in January. For China, it was the highest number of daily new cases in 10 months. It's now trying to prevent a super-spreading Spring Festival at all costs. And the costs are high for migrant workers like Sister Sun, my local fruit seller. She is one of the 300 million or so migrant workers who work in big cities far away from their hometowns.
SISTER SUN: (Through interpreter) Last year, we were home for only three days before hurrying back to Beijing. We're still trying to decide whether we go home this year.
FENG: Home, in Shandong province, where she's left her middle school-age daughter. Normally, Spring Festival is the one time they all get to be home together.
SUN: (Through interpreter) In normal times, she could come to Beijing on her school breaks. Not this year. We have video chat, I suppose. But she calls me every day. What else can you do?
FENG: Caught between making a living and going home, most workers are choosing the former, like Zhou Xiaoxiao, a Beijing restaurant worker from Sichuan province. She feigns toughness because she's 19 and working in one of China's biggest cities for the first time.
ZHOU XIAOXIAO: (Through interpreter) When I first got to Beijing last year, I did miss home a little. But that homesickness went away.
FENG: But that facade soon cracks.
ZHOU: (Through interpreter) Of course, deep down, I still want to go home. The New Year is best spend at home instead of in a faraway place.
FENG: I sympathize with her. I too am spending another new year away from family. At least Zhou and I have our health, our jobs. Maybe next year, we'll get to be with loved ones, too. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUZANNE KRAFT'S "TWO CHORD WAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.