Think of it as the Chinese version of Christmas. Lunar New Year—celebrated today, February 19—is the one holiday when everyone in China returns home to be with family, exchange gifts, and eat as much as they can.

But this simple cultural tradition has turned into a logistical nightmare for Chinese citizens, increasingly drawn away from their countryside hometowns for jobs in urban centers. With upwards of 260 million migrant workers—nearly one-fifth of the entire population—heading home for the holiday, Chinese authorities predict there will be 2.8 billion individual passenger journeys across the Middle Kingdom in the next few weeks.

It has become the largest annual human migration on the planet.

New Year reunions are so important that most Chinese will go to any lengths to make the trip, including waiting in line for days for train or bus tickets, or shelling out a sizable amount of their income to purchase flights. When I was living in China, a co-worker of mine purchased a standing-only train ticket home because it was all he could get. The one-way trip took 12 hours.

Many migrant workers in China’s cities have left behind aging parents; some have left behind their own children. The government forces these hard choices with its hukou system of family registration. Individuals inherit their designation as either “rural” or “urban” residents, which determines where they can access government benefits for education, healthcare, and retirement. Even if their parents are working in a city, rural children often cannot attend school or gain affordable healthcare there, and so are left in the countryside with their grandparents or other relatives.

Today as many ...

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