A Migrant Worker's Letter To China's Railways Ministry

Although the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as its more commonly called in China, is still several weeks away, the start of the country’s peak travel period, known as the “Spring Rush”, has already begun. Historically, the rush to book transportation for the holidays is fraught with frustration and hardship, with millions of Chinese waiting hours, sometimes days, to secure a train ticket home. For many people, especially China’s migrant workers, the Spring Festival is the only time during the year they can spend with their families, making the need to get home all the more urgent.

After years of promising reforms, China’s Railways Ministry this year introduced new online and telephone booking systems, meant to curb ticket scalping and long waits in line. While the new systems, to put it mildly, obviously still have some flaws that need to be worked out, for many in the country’s low-income migrant work force, they have made travelling during the Spring Festival more difficult than ever.

Yesterday the Chongqing Morning Post published a letter on its front page written by Huang Qinghong, a migrant worker employed in Wenzhou, addressed to the country’s top Railways officials, describing his difficulties buying a ticket home thanks to the new booking system. Below is a translation of excerpts from the letter as it appears online:

To the Leaders of the Railways Ministry,

My name is Huang Qinghong, I’m 37 years old, from Chongqing City, Pengshui, and I’ve been working in Wenzhou for more than 10 years. I’ve only seen you on TV, and I think that in this life I will never have a chance to meet you in person, but I have a lot that I’d like to say, so I’m writing this letter. I don’t know where to send it, so afterward I’ll deliver it to the news and entrust the reporters on the newspaper staff to deliver it to the appropriate persons.

Today I went to the train station for the fourth time to buy a ticket. I hoped that today I would have good luck, but unfortunately left again empty-handed. Every time I’ve gone, the agent at the ticket window has told me that all of the tickets are being snapped up by people ordering in advance over the phone or online, leaving none left for sale at the station.

Among my 40 co-workers and I, none of us are able to use a computer. Our boss felt sorry for us and offered to help, but after trying for half a day could also do nothing; all of the tickets were gone. “Even if they still had tickets,” he said, “you still need to open an online bank account.” We’re common workers, we’re not white collar, such things are ridiculous for us…

…One of my coworkers bought a bus ticket to Jiangxi, and was so excited. For us, a bus ticket is just like a winning lottery ticket!

My daughter is 6 this year, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen her. I don’t know how tall she’s grown or how much she’s learned to write. A train ticket home for me is 190 RMB, a bus ticket is 560 RMB. I don’t want to take the bus because of the expense, I’d rather save the money to spend on my daughter.

Every year during the Spring Rush, buying a train ticket home is like torture for migrant workers. But this year, even torture will not bring us any closer to home as there are no tickets left.

This year, as many as 185 million people are expected to travel during the week-long Spring Festival, which begins on January 23, up 21% from last year. Millions more are expected to travel on either side of the official holiday period, and the number of trips take via the country’s railways is once again projected to exceed the total population of China.

Update: a full English translation of the complete letter is now available online. Readers of Chinese can also view the original letter here.

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