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China works on new vacation policy

Plans to introduce long weekends and cut back on holiday weeks elicit mixed reactions.

November 22, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Jiang Xingjun hates holidays here.

Rather than providing respite or relaxation, China's three national vacation weeks -- one observed in winter, one in spring and one in fall -- are often more like hell on wheels, with jam-packed planes, trains and automobiles gone berserk, he says.

On cue, hundreds of millions of workers embark on mass pilgrimages to hometowns often located thousands of miles away. In the world's most populous nation, these so-called golden weeks are like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and the Fourth of July all rolled into one.

That means travel is a struggle for many Chinese vacationers. Plane tickets are precious, with two or three people vying for one seat. Highways are gridlocked. Trains are so crowded that bathrooms become seating compartments, forcing some desperate people to wear adult diapers on marathon trips that take 36 hours one way.

"The problem is that everyone goes at once," says Jiang, a 41-year-old medical equipment supplier. "It's impossible to get a ticket. And even if you do, it's way too crowded. It's crazy."

Now authorities are poised to take a step to lessen the vacation congestion and offer the nation's burgeoning workforce a new Western-style free-time option: the long weekend.

The plan would give Chinese citizens several paid one-day holidays spread throughout the year, offering them the freedom of deciding when to travel.

In addition, the plan would halt a production slowdown during the national holiday weeks that idles China's ferocious economic engine -- a time when everything from factories to stock markets close up shop.

Officials also worry about the environmental impact that the golden weeks bring, including hordes of migrating tourists fighting for space at the nation's parks and national landmarks.

"When vacationers climb a mountain, all they see are the backs of people's heads," said Cai Jiming, an economist at Qinghua University who advised the government on the new plan. "On the way down, they see the faces of those coming up."

Under the new public holiday calendar, the annual three-day Labor Day holiday in May would be reduced to a single day. The remaining two golden weeks, to celebrate the Spring Festival and October's National Day, would not change.

Workers would get a day off for cultural festivals that previously brought no time off from their jobs. They include Tomb Sweeping Day in April, a time to pay respects to ancestors; the dragon boat, or dumpling, festival in May; and the moon cake festival in mid-autumn.

The number of public holidays would increase to 11 from 10. The golden weeks include three official days off, but employees usually work the weekend before so they can take off seven straight days.

Officials hope the move will boost the nation's tourism industry. New agencies have sprung up to handle the expected demand for weekend getaway packages at a time when personal travel is exploding -- a 50-fold increase over the last 20 years.

The plan, which requires the central government's approval, also would make it compulsory for companies to offer workers paid leave after one year.

The proposal to revise China's holiday calendar is not new. But this year, word of a renewed plan has created a buzz on Internet chat rooms and in newspapers, tea rooms and dumpling houses.

Not everyone is in favor. Two dozen newspaper editors sent a petition urging the government to add holidays but not at the expense of the May golden week.

One government news agency reported that 70% of respondents to an online survey supported the plan. But polling results reported by other news outlets showed that as many as 60% of participants opposed the idea.

Critics contend that the government's plan is overly ambitious, saying it's no easy matter to change the social habits of 1.3 billion people.

For workers who have moved to urban areas to support their rural families, the golden weeks are essential times when husbands connect with wives and parents return home to visit children left behind.

"Just because a government edict decrees a holiday no longer exists doesn't mean these long-held traditions will disappear," said Karen Seto, an associate professor of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University who specializes in China.

"It's not good news for poor people," said Dai Bin, a professor at Beijing International Studies University. "And canceling a weeklong holiday will discourage the middle class from hitting the road on pleasure trips."

An estimated half a billion people take trips during the golden weeks. The most difficult conditions are endured by poor workers who can afford only the budget-priced "hard seat" tickets on trains.

"Two years ago, I took a 16-hour train trip home with a hard seat -- I'll never do it again," said a 22-year-old Beijing woman. "People were sitting on the floor, on tables. I waited hours to use the bathroom and when I got there, passengers had turned it into a seating compartment."

Officials say they are most hopeful about the plan to require companies to give paid leave to longtime employees, providing them even more time to rest, travel and enjoy the fruits of China's economic boom.

"The concept of paid time off is very Western in its approach," said Zheng Qiang, an industrial engineering professor at Peking University.

"The government doesn't like to admit it's following Western style, but in reality, that's just what they're doing."

Cai, the economist, says Chinese are aware that workers in many Western nations enjoy better benefits and they want their share.

"For China," he said, "this is just the beginning."


Julie Zhang of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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