When China abruptly ended its Covid-related restrictions on Dec. 7, there were worries that the expected massive migration and family gatherings during the Chinese New Year holidays might greatly exacerbate the pandemic situation.
However, when people sat together for the New Year’s Eve dinner last Saturday (Jan 21), it seemed that almost everybody in China had been not only infected but had also recovered – or passed away.
Relatives and friends would exchange their experiences with the disease and mourn those that had passed away. But the fear was already gone. A heavy page seemed to have been turned, or at least, people feel that it is over.
This is the first time in three years that Chinese families can have almost normal Lunar New Year celebrations. Between 2020 and 2022, many couldn’t make it to their hometowns for the holiday due to the government’s draconian control measures.
Covid curbed family pressure
The holidays, which are supposed to be time for joyful and reflective family reunions, can often also serve as a setting for conflicts. Generational clashes, feuds between siblings, and grievances over the distribution of family fortunes and obligations could all erupt.
In the past decade or so, complaints about a particular type of annoyance during Chinese New Year gatherings have been distinctly loud on social media. They are being made by young people working and living in places far away from their hometowns who are annoyed by imposing relatives’ pressure to get married or have children. But perhaps this is also because some brave young people countered inappropriate comments and questions over the years.
Suddenly everyone was against zero-Covid
Demographics also play a role. China introduced the one-child policy in 1979. The first only-child generation is already in their early- to mid-forties. This, together with urbanization, has led decisively to the downsizing of families and weaker clans-bonding, which, in turn, means less interference in the private lives of family members.
There was another source of tension at dinner tables with relatives and friends during the Chinese New Year holidays of the past few years: Different political views, for example, on the country’s Covid approach, which could occasionally result in passionate debates. This year so far, these fights seemed to only rarely happen. “In my family and friend circles in my home in Chengdu, my hometown, even the staunchest supporters of the government’s Covid policies are now cursing it,” a man named Lacus commented on WeChat, China’s biggest social media platform.
The government dictates a good mood
Among families who lost loved ones to the Omicron outbreak last month, the mood is naturally more somber. Government officials, clever as they are, have foreseen this and have in the run-up to the holidays published preemptive guidelines to prevent the negative comments from spilling from dinner tables to social media.
The Cyberspace Administration of China announced the launch of a month-long campaign for “clean and clear cyberspace” on January 18. A key point is to “prevent spreading a gloomy mood… and dark side of the society”. It’s a vague definition. Obviously, deaths and pains from Covid would qualify. But these are the only posts the government does not want to see.
Protesters were arrested
Also shortly before the Lunar New Year, nine participants of the anti-government protests in late November in Beijing, known as the white paper demonstrations, were officially arrested. Before the arrests, one of the protesters, Cao Zhixing, feeling the coming danger, published a video message on the Internet pleading for help.
Her video clip and news of the arrests circulated on social media outside China. Some also posted them on Chinese platforms, but the posts were quickly deleted or hidden by censors.
But the anger that these young people have to spend the holidays behind the bars and will most likely face imprisonment afterward could be felt, together with discussions about how to help them.
Vietnam celebrates the Year of the Cat
The Lunar New Year is celebrated in many countries in East Asia. It originated most likely from China. But it has become an integral part of all these local cultures, so calling it the Chinese New Year elsewhere is unthinkable.
Also, some of these countries have made little modifications when they adapted it. For example, Vietnam also celebrates Lunar New Year. But while the Vietnamese used almost all the same zodiac animals to designate the years, there is one exception, which happens to fall on this year. For the Chinese, this year is the Year of the Rabbit. But in Vietnam, it is the Year of the Cat.