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China’s Lunar New Year travel offers spark of economic rebound from Covid crunch

Urban workers crowded train stations across China’s largest cities on Tuesday, January 17, as the country’s mass migration for Lunar New Year holidays hit high gear, an early sign of economic recovery as officials confirmed a historic plunge due to Covid 19 curbs.

The world’s second-largest economy slowed sharply in the fourth quarter, data showed on Tuesday, dragging 2022 growth down to one its worst performances in nearly half a century, after three years of Covid 19 restrictions and lockdowns.

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With mass travel for the Lunar New Year possible for the first time in nearly three years and after the relaxing of some of the world’s tightest Covid curbs, the economy stands to gain from hundreds of thousands of people a day spending more as they return to China’s hinterland.

While many analysts say a return to economic normality will be gradual as the impact of Covid weakens, some see the Lunar New Year as a welcome early-consumption boost.

“Peak infections passed in major cities in January, and with the Spring Festival coming, tourism is back and the signs of a recovery in consumption are obvious,” said Nie Wen, a Shanghai economist at investment firm Hwabao Trust.

But even as workers move out, health experts fear a broadening and deepening of its Covid outbreak, leaving the elderly in rural villages particularly vulnerable.

Despite Chinese authorities confirming a huge increase in deaths over the weekend, announcing that nearly 60 000 people with Covid had died in hospitals between December 8 and January 12, World Health Organization (WHO) officials are seeking a more sweeping accounting of death rates.

The WHO earlier welcomed the announcement after last week, warning that China was heavily under-reporting deaths from the virus.

Specifically, the UN agency wants information on so-called excess mortality – the number of all deaths beyond the norm during a crisis, the WHO said.

“This is especially important during periods of surges when the health system is severely constrained,” it said on Monday, January 16.

The WHO added that it would continue working with China to provide advice and support, but had not yet fixed another meeting with Chinese officials after WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke to Ma Xiaowei, the director of China’s National Health Commission, at the weekend.


The Ministry of Transport has estimated the rush would see more than two billion passenger trips nationwide between January 7 and February 15, as many Chinese city dwellers make the most of their first chance for Lunar New Year trips to see extended family in home regions since the pandemic began.

State media reported that some 390 000 passengers were expected to travel from Shanghai train stations on Tuesday, January 17, alone for what is known as the Spring Festival holiday and which is seen as the world’s largest annual mass migration before Covid.

The holiday season has also sparked a revival in domestic air travel, with more than 70 000 flights across China between January 7 and 13, according to industry data reported by Shanghai Securities News. That’s equivalent to more than 80% of the levels seen before the pandemic.

International air links are also recovering. Emirates Airlines became the latest carrier to announce it would resume services from its Dubai hub to Shanghai this week, and would operate daily flights to Shanghai and Beijing from March.


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