BREAK POINTS

Na­tion feels the heat in va­ca­tion de­bate

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - RAY­MOND ZHOU X-RAY Con­tact the writer at raymondzhou@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Cal­i­brat­ing the hol­i­day sched­ule has been a dis­creet ex­er­cise in democ­racy, and peo­ple are re­al­iz­ing that there is no per­fect choice, only an op­ti­mal one de­ter­mined by a ma­jor­ity.

The re­cent online vote on the 2014 sched­ule of China’s pub­lic hol­i­days was en­light­en­ing in many ways. Most of all, it shows there is give and take in ev­ery de­ci­sion. Here are the three choices pro­posed by the Na­tional Hol­i­day Of­fice on Nov 27:

Plan A: Chi­nese New Year (Spring Fes­ti­val) will be seven days off, in­clud­ing four days from ad­join­ing week­ends. Na­tional Day (Oct 1) will have three days off, with no shuf­fling of week­ends. New Year’s Day, Qing­ming, La­bor Day, and Duanwu and Mid-Au­tumn fes­ti­vals will each be one day off.

Plan B: Na­tional Day will have five con­sec­u­tive days off, in­clud­ing a weekend. The rest will be the same as Plan A.

Plan C: Same as Plan A, ex­cept Na­tional Day, like the Spring Fes­ti­val, will have seven days off, in­clud­ing four weekend days.

Plan C re­ceived the ma­jor­ity of votes, vary­ing from 50 per­cent to 60 per­cent on dif­fer­ent web­sites, which, if adopted, means 2014 will be pretty much the same as 2013 in the ar­range­ment of civic hol­i­days.

Some cried foul at the ex­clu­sion of a seven-day La­bor Day (May 1) hol­i­day, as it would have been the most pop­u­lar had it been in­cluded. Oth­ers ar­gued that a longer Spring Fes­ti­val is needed as it is the time tra­di­tion­ally stip­u­lated for fam­ily gath­er­ings, and those liv­ing far apart have to spend time trav­el­ing home to be with their par­ents.

Hav­ing a long na­tion­wide hol­i­day sounds like a lot of fun, but it is of­ten a lo­gis­ti­cal night­mare. It strains re­sources to break­ing point when hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple travel at the same time. Even for busi­nesses that can hike prices, it means long idle pe­ri­ods and wasted re­sources dur­ing the slow sea­son.

The rous­ing call for longer and more hol­i­days is a sign of the mid­dle class flex­ing its mus­cles. In the agrar­ian era, farm­ers could have up to half a year off over a long win­ter, giv­ing rise to such folk art as the two-per­son ban­ter of North­east China. The no­tion of le­gal hol­i­days did not creep into Chi­nese con­scious­ness un­til the 1990s when large seg­ments of the so­ci­ety started mov­ing to ur­ban ar­eas.

I re­mem­ber when I was a kid even the weekend meant only one day off, or one and a half days at most. Yet pro­duc­tiv­ity was so low that many treated their work­ing hours as a time of re­lax­ation and re­served the hol­i­day for heavy-lift­ing house­hold chores.

The three op­tions listed above have a fixed num­ber of hol­i­days — 11 days ex­clud­ing “bor­rowed” week­ends. It was ob­vi­ous some peo­ple were hop­ing for more hol­i­days in ag­gre­gate, not just mov­ing days around to form longer hol­i­day pe­ri­ods.

It is rea­son­able that peo­ple want long hol­i­days — to spend time with loved ones, to visit far­away places or sim­ply to take a rest from work. It’s just not the wis­est thing to have long hol­i­days with a bil­lion-plus oth­ers. The way I see it, it is the sched­ul­ing of hol­i­days, more than the num­ber of hol­i­days, that is at the root of the prob­lem.

Now, you can do noth­ing about the Spring Fes­ti­val. Essen­tially Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas rolled into one, it is de­ter­mined by the lu­nar cal­en­dar and can be much longer than seven days de­pend­ing on the kind of work you do and the pol­icy of your em­ployer. In most work­places that I know, you can ex­tend the week by sev­eral days by ei­ther fin­ish­ing up your work ahead of time or ask­ing for leave out­right.

If your par­ents live far away and your work is more

It is rea­son­able that peo­ple want long hol­i­days — to spend time with loved ones, to visit far­away places or sim­ply to take a rest from work. It’s just not the wis­est thing to have long hol­i­days with a bil­lion-plus oth­ers. The way I see it, it is the sched­ul­ing of hol­i­days, more than the num­ber of hol­i­days, that is at the root of the prob­lem.

out­put-ori­ented, this can be eas­ily ar­ranged. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, the fes­tive mood lasts two weeks, mean­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity for a week be­yond the le­gal por­tion of the hol­i­days would not be very high.

Over­all, things are get­ting bet­ter now, what with the avail­abil­ity of high-speed trains and the af­ford­abil­ity of flights. Col­leges tend to stag­ger the de­par­ture and ar­rival dates for their stu­dents, and the army of mi­grant work­ers is thin­ning.

What the sur­vey failed to take into ac­count, how­ever, was that most of its re­spon­dents were white-col­lar work­ers. Those with more flex­i­ble sched­ules did not fig­ure prop­erly in the re­sults.

The La­bor Day and Na­tional Day “golden weeks”, which were im­ple­mented for sev­eral years be­fore the for­mer was dis­con­tin­ued, have al­ready dis­played to the fullest both the pros and cons of a week­long hol­i­day. Re­tain­ing one of the weeks seems good for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion partly be­cause ei­ther falls at the be­gin­ning or end of a tourist sea­son. Other than that, there are work­ers whose jobs leave ab­so­lutely no room for flex­i­bil­ity in the shuf­fling of work­days, and there­fore de­pend on such weeks for se­ri­ous sight­see­ing.

The real so­lu­tion lies in paid va­ca­tions that are granted by the em­ployer. This sys­tem is at its early stage in China and is em­braced only by em­ploy­ers with strong fi­nan­cial backup, such as gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions and State-owned com­pa­nies. It is dif­fi­cult to en­force among the mil­lions of pri­vate busi­nesses, es­pe­cially those with lim­ited size and where­withal.

Think of it this way: If you are self-em­ployed, you don’t re­ally need a gov­ern­ment edict to tell you when to take time off and for how long. If a le­gal hol­i­day falls at a busy time in your busi­ness, you’ll prob­a­bly keep work­ing and take it when ev­ery­one else is back at work.

It may sound far-fetched, but a fun­da­men­tal im­prove­ment in the na­tion’s hol­i­day scheme hinges on re­spect for pri­vate busi­nesses, the pro­tec­tion of their rights and in­ter­ests, and the low­er­ing of their tax bur­den.

Yes, some of the high-tech com­pa­nies have enor­mous clout, and en­trepreneur­ship is al­ways en­cour­aged, but it is the mil­lions of small- and medium-sized com­pa­nies that can put a dent into the un­em­ploy­ment rate and lift the big­gest chunk of the lower and lower-mid­dle class to a life­style with ben­e­fits such as health insurance and paid va­ca­tions.

In that sense, there is not much the gov­ern­ment can do. If it forces ev­ery em­ployer to give ev­ery em­ployee a cer­tain num­ber of days as paid va­ca­tion, it will sim­ply push a large num­ber of them over the cliff into bank­ruptcy and clo­sure. Only when most are thriv­ing will they will­ingly give such ben­e­fits to those who helped them suc­ceed.

While it is hon­or­able to fight for one’s rights or perks, there is an un­de­ni­able whiff of a get­ting-more-for­less men­tal­ity. If some­one of­fers 22 days of civic hol­i­day, he or she will be­come a na­tional hero. But would that be fea­si­ble? Should China march in the wel­farestate di­rec­tion of some Euro­pean na­tions?

Be­fore we imi­tate the en­vi­able ben­e­fits en­joyed in those coun­tries, we should study their suc­cess and make en­trepreneur­ship, not pa­per-shuf­fling civil ser­vice, the envy of the na­tion’s young. Be­yond a cer­tain mea­sure, things have to be earned one way or another.

PANG LI / CHINA DAILY

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