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China’s mandatory vacation, with complications

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BEIJING — Who doesn’t love a weeklong obligatory vacation?In China, where an estimated 200 million people on Friday began elbowing their way onto trains, buses and highways for the National Day holiday, the answer is not so simple.

Beyond the frustration of overloaded transportation and jam-packed tourist attractions, there is the problem of figuring out what has become a decidedly confusing rubric of work and vacation days.

According to a government-mandated holiday schedule that took effect in 2008,workers were given three consecutive days off last week for the Mid-Autumn Festival, but they were then required to make up two of those days by working the Saturday and Sunday on either end of the holiday.

This give-and-take arrangement is then repeated for the National Day holiday, with employees enjoying seven straight days off — Friday through Oct. 7 — except only three of those are official free days. (The four "gifted days" will be made up over the weekends before and after.)

If you have trouble following the math, you are in good company.

"Seeing the calendar, my first reaction was, ‘This is insane, how am I supposed to remember this?"’ Zhou Li, a government employee, told The Yangzhou Daily last week. "The arrangement is so complicated, with holidays messed up with weekends, it is impossible to memorize."

The problem was made worse this year because the Mid-Autumn Festival, which hews to the lunar calendar, fell on Sept. 22, within a week of the longer National Day sojourn.

A cheat sheet that has been making the rounds on the Internet sums up the pattern as such, beginning Sept. 18: One day off, three days on, three days off, six days on, seven days off, two days on, one day off.

Confusion aside, many Chinese resent having to pay back some of their vacation days.

"Even while I’m enjoying my week off, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that I have to make up four of those days during my weekends," said Huang Linmei, 25, a legal secretary in Beijing. "I’d like to yell at the person who came up with this schedule."

Huang could start by yelling at Cai Jiming, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing who is generally blamed for pushing the changes that saw the shortening of the May Day holiday from a week to a day and its replacement with three shorter blocks — Mid-Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat Festival and Tomb-Sweeping Day — that were scattered through the year. Although officials have promoted the holidays as a way for people to reconnect to traditions eradicated decades ago by the Communist Party, most Chinese complain that at three days each, the holidays are too short for traveling.

Even if the government increased the number of official holidays to 11 from 10 days, it infuriated the nation by killing off one of three so-called Golden Weeks (the third one is the Spring Festival, when Chinese celebrate the Lunar New Year in January or February).

Cai, who has been widely vilified for advocating the elimination of the compulsory Golden Week holidays, is eager to explain that he is committed to giving Chinese workers their much deserved leisure time while sparing the country’s transportation system and tourist sites the madness of mass travel.

"It’s not good for the environment, and it’s not good for the tourist sector, which has to invest all this money for a few weeks of craziness and then is relatively idle the rest of the year," he said.

To understand the logic behind China’s embrace of mandated leisure, it is helpful to take a step back. It was during the throes of the Asian financial crisis that Beijing, in 1999, came up with the notion of Golden Weeks as a way to incite consumer spending and to give a lift to the nascent tourist industry.

But penurious spending habits and low wages doomed any economic windfall, while those who did travel domestically returned to work less than refreshed.

"I stopped going anywhere during Golden Week after I was forced to stand 20 hours on the train back from Huangshan," said Chen Liubing, 29, a computer repair technician, referring to a fabled mountain that is a popular tourist draw.

The other problem, Chinese leaders realized, is that bringing the entire country to a halt for three weeks is not exactly conducive to a nation obsessed with rapid economic growth.

But two years ago, when the government proposed phasing out both the May Day and National Day Golden Weeks, the people’s response was so furious that only the May Day one was affected and the three short "traditional" holidays were born.

Many officials are still seeking an end to the National Day Golden Week, but they acknowledge that for now, mandatory holidays may be the only way to give workers time off, given that most companies ignore a law that guarantees workers 15 days of paid vacation a year — to be taken at a time of their own choosing.

Cai said that one day, when China’s development is on par with that of Europe and the United States, he hoped people would be able to take vacations when they pleased, not in one gigantic, nerve-racking huddle.

"We just aren’t there yet," he said with disappointment.

Still, he admitted that even if he had paid time off, he probably would stay at his office desk, which is where he will be spending the coming week.

"I’m not going anywhere," he said. "I just have too much work to do."

Li Bibo and Zhang Jing contributed research.


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