China and Inner Asia
Loyola Marymount University, United States
Hundreds of millions of Chinese people return home to reunite with their family members during the Chinese lunar New Year, precipitating the world’s largest annual human migration, chunyun, or the Spring Festival travel rush. The size of this annual mobility event has increased thirtyfold since the 1980s owing to an astonishing growth of China’s mobile populations, particularly rural-urban migrant workers, within the contexts of its integration into the global economy and rapid global rise. Between 2011 and 2019, about three billion journeys transported the equivalent of half of the world’s population each year during the 40-day official travel season. This number only dwindled in 2020 and 2021 when domestic and international travels were suspended to combat the coronavirus outbreak. Described by railway workers as a “calamity” in the 1990s and 2000s, the travel rush has been well contained and managed in recent years. This article answers the question: What has changed? Based on a combination of ethnographic fieldwork, in-depth interviews with railway workers and passengers, and media analysis, I argue that extraordinary population flows have become more manageable through the mediation of several types of mobility infrastructures beyond the overall expansion of China’s transportation networks. These infrastructures include, for example, well-calibrated hierarchical coordination and horizontal linkage, temporal and spatial mediation, human-machine assemblage, and the strategic use of digital and data technologies. This paper sheds new light on the technologies and techniques adopted by the Chinese state to both facilitate and regulate unusual population mobility in crisis and everyday life.