Vacations with Chinese characteristics
Congested traffic stretching for miles has become a familiar fixture at the beginning and end of national holidays in China as families line up to enter and exit big cities. This has become the new normal of vacations with Chinese characteristics.
During the May Day holiday from last Friday to Sunday, nearly 1.4 million vehicles crossed Shanghai’s borders each day, up 8 percent year-on-year.
The traffic jams on all of the main expressways that connect the city with neighboring Jiangsu, Anhui and Zhejiang provinces lasted for nearly 10 hours on Friday and Sunday. The tailbacks stretched for up to 10 kilometers in all directions. And the average vehicle speed was 30 to 60 km per hour on the highways, which have a maximum speed limit of 120 km per hour, for the rest of the holiday.
All of which means that millions of people in Shanghai routinely waste hours of their hard-earned vacation time staring at the taillights of the car in front of them. This is especially ironic in a city whose residents are famous for managing their time wisely.
It is the same case for all major cities in the country.
In the 1990s, the government created three so-called “golden weeks”, largely to boost consumption. These national vacations ran for around seven days during the Spring Festival in winter, around National Day in early October, and around May Day.
However, the rate of urbanization in China has nearly doubled from then to about 54 percent now. Moreover, private car ownership has jumped 10-fold. As nearly half of all the urban residents in big cities hail from the provinces, this creates a recipe for disaster when everyone wants to head home.
Except for during national holidays, many people who work in private companies do not enjoy paid vacations, so the temptation to take the same days off as everyone else is great.
A study by Tsinghua University last year showed that only about 30 percent of employees in China took a paid vacation last year.
But the vast majority of those polled prefer the greater flexibility that paid vacations afford vis-à-vis the crowded national holidays.
That the government exempts highway tolls for passenger cars in the holidays further aggravates traffic congestion. In truth, the policy is a waste of both time and oil. Millions of trucks, most of which are owned by logistics companies, are stranded for hours and hours on stretches of highway just burning fumes as their engines idle.
If the government wants to boost domestic consumption, it should no longer rely on such tactics.
Rather, it should improve the overall consumption environment and strictly implement labor laws that were first enacted over two decades ago.
A report last year by Beijing Normal University on China’s labor market indicates that Chinese people work about 2,200 hours a year, much higher than in most other emerging economies and developed countries.
Paid vacations are a legal right for workers — not tools subsidiary to the needs of the government’s macro-economic policies.
Labor Day should be more than just a holiday. It should be an important occasion for the country to improve its labor system and deliver the appropriate benefits to those in need.