Holiday plans good for workers and wallets
Holidays on the mainland have more to do with central planning than culture and custom, or even rest and recreation. The result has been the 'golden weeks', the chaotic phenomenon of up to half a billion people on the move at the same time. Roads are congested, transport infrastructure stretched and tourist destinations brought to breaking point.
Holidays, in such circumstances, can easily turn into ordeals. Now the planners in Beijing have unveiled proposals that make more sense - and have invited public comment. There is, perhaps, no need to ask working people if they would like more holidays. The answer is going to be 'yes'. But there is more to it than that.
The plan shows more respect for the role of culture, tradition and the family - values worth preserving amid rapid economic and social change. From next year, mainlanders are expected to join Hong Kong people in taking holidays to celebrate the Ching Ming, dragon boat and mid-autumn festivals. The new deal is overdue.
There is no longer any reason for the Communist Party to fear the cultural and religious overtones of these customary celebrations. On the contrary, declaring them holidays can help achieve social harmony in a way golden weeks never have. These were introduced in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis in 1999 with the aim of kick-starting stalled consumption. The authorities ruled that employees must take a week's holiday for Lunar New Year, Labour Day in May and National Day in October.
China's sizzling growth since then, and the growth of consumerism in a society becoming increasingly affluent, have rendered the measure superfluous. Far from promoting consumption, it is arguable the golden weeks have become an anachronism in a globalised economy. Government offices shut for seven days, paralysing customs, tax and licensing matters. The closure of businesses throws commercial life into confusion.
The changes are not revolutionary. The week-long Lunar New Year holiday remains, of course, while the May Day holiday is shortened to one day. The retention of the National Day golden week may be questionable, but more flexible holidays, along with a parallel proposal for the introduction of formal paid leave for all workers, leave the way open for a rethink in the longer term.
In keeping with the mainland practice of declaring a weekend either side of official holidays to be working days and then adding compensation days to the break, the grave-sweeping day and dragon boat and mid-autumn festivals will effectively become three-day holidays.
The new public holiday regime is not only good for the welfare of ordinary workers but has more potential than the golden weeks to boost tourism and consumption. This is also true of the paid-leave plan. Workers would be entitled to five days' annual paid leave if they have worked for the same employer for 12 months, rising to 10 days after 10 years and 15 days after 20 years. It would be the first time the mainland has stipulated concrete measures for ordinary workers' paid leave. The Labour Law of 1995 provides for it, without specifying rules. Civil servants qualified for it last year.
China's growing wealth is not evenly distributed among its 1.3 billion people. More holidays on the mainland will not put more money in people's pockets. But the proposals are an important, if small, measure of social equity.