A Tide of Return

Alex Majoli photographed a different sort of migration, one that's less about conflict and more about opportunity. This is China's economy on the move.

Alex Majoli photographed a different sort of migration, one that's less about conflict and more about opportunity. This is China's economy on the move.

The video paraded through people's social media feeds, shared and re-shared: Here's a rush hour far more nightmarish than your own. Those who clicked saw an aerial view of a subway station in Beijing, the platform practically dot-painted with anxious commuters. And then the train pulled in.

The doors released a gush of humanity, allowing the new passengers to shove their way in, pushing and stepping until the line stopped moving entirely. That's when the train-packers appeared, energetic professionals clad in yellow, some carrying sticks. Using their body weight, they stuffed the cabin like stubborn luggage.

Guangzhou, China
image with artdirection
Guangzhou, China

The video should come with a trigger warning for the claustrophobic. But even at the time — a typical Thursday morning in 2013 — it was far from the worst travel experience that China had to offer. That comes every holiday season when the world's most populous country pulls off the world's largest annual human migration, a travel season 60 times larger than America's worst Thanksgiving Day scramble.

It's an example of mass migration as a byproduct not of war, but of want — in this case, the want of a better life.

People pack onto trains, planes, buses, motorcycles, and into private cars, journeying from China's coastal megacities to rejoin families in the rural heart of the country. More than 170 million of them are migrant workers, lured by manufacturing jobs, lost in a swirl of ambition that takes them from village to factory and back again at least once a year.

We commonly think of migrants as war refugees. The soldiers stream in and the people stream out, often never to return. China's yearly turnover is a check on this way of thinking. It's an example of mass migration as a byproduct not of war, but of want — in this case, the want of a better life.

image with artdirection
Guangzhou, China
During the annual Lunar festival millions of people in China return to their homes, leaving major Chinese cities in large waves.
This year, China's Ministry of Transport projected the amount of travelers will reach 2.9 billion—an increase of 3.6 since last year.
Map During the annual Lunar festival millions of people in China return to their homes, leaving major Chinese cities in large waves.
Chart This year, China's Ministry of Transport projected the amount of travelers will reach 2.9 billion—an increase of 3.6 since last year.
Map During the annual Lunar festival millions of people in China return to their homes, leaving major Chinese cities in large waves.
Chart This year, China's Ministry of Transport projected the amount of travelers will reach 2.9 billion—an increase of 3.6 since last year.
image with artdirection
Beijing, China
Dong Guang, China
Guangzhou, China
Dong Guang, China / Guangzhou, China The Chinese government deploys hundreds of extra buses and trains to accommodate the millions of travelers.
Dong Guang, China / Guangzhou, China The Chinese government deploys hundreds of extra buses and trains to accommodate the millions of travelers.

China's annual travelers are most immediately in motion for Golden Week, a period of feasts and fine clothes. It's part of the Spring Festival, a celebration of the lunar New Year, the country's most important holiday. Officials call the period chunyun, which roughly translates to "spring transportation" — a phrase that sends a bolt of fear through the spines of many.

The average traveler needs three trips to get home, according to official estimates, which is why the country prepares to accommodate more trips than there are people: 2.9 billion between January 21 and March 3 alone. The average journey is 255 miles, according to estimates by the Chinese Ministry of Transport. But trips of more than 30-hours are common.

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Beijing, China Guards direct travelers at the railway station.

You thought a Beijing rush hour was bad? For chunyun, the train stations of Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou are smeared with people on the move. In a single weekend in February, for example, more than 20 million passengers departed by train. They squeezed onto hundreds of special lines, some climbing through windows, others making room by leaving their bags behind.

And they were the lucky ones.

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Guangzhou, China

Every year minor problems spiral into day-long delays, stranding hundreds of thousands of people. In Guangzhou alone, for example, a snow storm left 176,000 people sleeping on the floor of the train station and the surrounding area, a camp out the size of Fort Lauderdale or Chattanooga. They try not to eat or drink, because even the bathrooms are doubling as bedrooms.

The roads can be even worse.

About 2.5 billion of the nation's spring trips are road journeys and there simply aren't enough lanes on the highway. Last year, a drone captured footage of a 50-lane highway outside Beijing, snarled for miles by stalled cars, minor accidents and the need to merge into a comparatively narrow roadway — just 20-lanes.

Dong Guan, China A couple travels on the train to Dong Guan. "Oh, why today?" she asks. "So many people." He replies, "It doesn't matter."
image with artdirection
Guangzhou, China

It was a similar scene this year. New ride-sharing apps put more people in the cars and more cars on the old highways, which then shuddered to a halt. In now-familiar pictures shared online, log-jammed passengers get out of their cars to stretch. Some play ball on the roadways. Others picnic in the shadow of their own wheel wells.

That's when the touts appear, selling overpriced water and instant noodles, some reportedly threatening to shatter the windshield of anyone who balks at the price.  To protect passengers, the Chinese government deploys thousands of security personnel. It also deploys hundreds of extra buses and trains.

image with artdirection
Guangzhou, China
image with artdirection
image with artdirection
Guangzhou, China A snowstorm left 176,000 people to sleep on the floor of the train station and the surrounding area of Guangzhou.

But there's not a lot the Chinese government can do to ease the strain of this annual movement, because the forces involved are larger than China alone. Since the end of World War II, global trade has grown to connect virtually every country on earth, knotting together far-flung economies and creating a chain of creation and consumption.

As the U.S. became a consumer's republic, China became a haven for makers, the factory floor for the goodies we craved.

The total value of this trade is bewildering: some $15 trillion. That's about 300 times larger than it was in the 1950s, the start of America's postwar boom, which was also the start of a symbiotic relationship between China and the United States. As the U.S. became a consumer's republic, China became a haven for makers, the factory floor for the goodies we craved.

image with artdirection
Guangzhou, China

This relationship is not as straightforward as it might seem.

In our minds and in our media, we often cast Chinese migrants in the saddest roles. They are represented by the young woman who earns a dollar an hour making your handbag. Or the young man who commits suicide rather than assemble your iPad. Or the mothers and fathers who can't raise their children because they are too busy building our baubles.

In our minds and in our media, we often cast Chinese migrants in the saddest roles.

But this view is a mistake, according to Leslie T. Chang, the author "Factory Girls" and a former Wall Street Journal reporter in Asia. "It's also inaccurate and disrespectful," she wrote in The New Yorker in 2012.

Beijing, China / Dong Guan, China
image with artdirection
Yi Xian, China
Yi Xian, China
Nanping, China / Yixian, China People flood the local market for last-minute shopping. In the village of Nanping, residents hang wishes for the new year in front of their doors.

"Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable desire for iPods," Chang continued. "They choose to leave their farming villages for the city in order to earn money, to learn new skills, to improve themselves, and to see the world. And they are forever changed by the experience."

The annual Spring Festival amounts to decades of migration in reverse, a 40-day rewind, tens of millions of people opening the doors to their old homes. In a typical year, almost all of those workers leave again, shuffling back to the factories, back to long=term plans for family improvement.

They choose to leave their farming villages for the city in order to earn money, to learn new skills, to improve themselves, and to see the world.
image with artdirection
Nanping, China

But China is changing again. In 2015, the economy suffered its worst year since 1990, the year after tanks chased away protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. This year is supposed to be even worse, hobbled by a manufacturing sector that's stuck in a cycle of rising costs and declining demand.

One result is massive layoffs and scores of angry workers. Some are chasing lost paychecks from bosses who cut lights and ran. Millions of others are simply going home on one-way tickets to the farms and mountains they left behind.

Guangzhou, China
image with artdirection
Guangzhou, China The factors involved in this migration are larger than China alone. Since the end of World War II, global trade has grown to connect virtually every country on earth, knotting together far-flung economies and creating a chain of creation and consumption.

This "tide of return," as it's been dubbed, started after the global financial crisis of 2008 — but it's deepened since then, merging with the government's own plan to urbanize the vast interior of the country. Party officials hope that China can expand its own pool of consumers, turning farmers into shoppers, and letting other countries take on the title of the world's factory floor.

If they succeed, the next viral traffic video may not be Chinese.

ALEX MAJOLI was born in Ravenna, Italy. Throughout his photography career, he has documented conflict worldwide, including assignments for the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Granta and National Geographic, among other international publications.

He believes that “it is beautiful to take pictures.” Over the last decade, he has been experimenting with capturing theatrical elements in scenes of material reality. Majoli has published several books, including: Leros (2002), One Vote (2004), Libera Me (2010) and Congo (2015) done in collaboration with Paolo Pellegrin.

Majoli became a full member of Magnum Photos in 2001. He currently lives in New York.