In Defense of China’s Golden Week

January 17, 2013

There is a lot to dislike about China’s ginormous week-long holidays, one of which, Spring Festival/New Year, is coming up in a few weeks. The crowds are larger than you can imagine, requiring some sort of logarithmic scale of imagination to comprehend, the weird system of moving around weekend days is bizarre and uncomfortable, and the run-up to the holiday itself (i.e., all the pre-holiday shopping) is already making a trip to the supermarket something to be avoided. If that wasn’t enough, the entire country slowly winds down to a halt in the days before the holiday, making news hard to come by and blogging practically impossible!

And yet I find myself disagreeing with a call by McKinsey China to do away with Golden Week entirely. Call me crazy, but I firmly believe that workers are most productive, healthy and happy when they have sufficient time off.

Here’s the argument put forward by McKinsey’s Gordon Orr, with my plea for maintaining the tradition below:

Perhaps this is more a hope than an expectation. Fifteen years ago, when the current structure of mandated vacation weeks was put in place, China’s economy was very different. There was a real belief that, without mandated vacations, most workers would never get a holiday or have an opportunity to spend the income they were saving. Yes, many hundreds of millions did travel during the Chinese New Year period, but far fewer people had migrated from their home towns to new urban environments than have done so today, and far fewer could afford to travel. In this respect, China was not that different from those European countries that mandated vacation weeks in the 1970s.

Today, these compulsory holiday weeks merely serve to saturate and overload the country’s infrastructure—if anything, reducing the amount of money that people spend on travel and related services as more and more choose to stay at home. The growing middle classes can schedule their own vacations when they want to much more readily than they could in the past. Formerly, large numbers of state-owned and private-sector enterprises did not meet the legal requirements for vacations. But in the age of social media, even factory workers can now name and shame offending employers.

Mandated vacation weeks will either gradually decline into irrelevance—starting in first-tier cities—or, better still, they will be formally abolished as an idea that has outlived its purpose.

The description/criticism is spot on, and certainly things have changed since China mandated the current system to boost spending and make sure that folks were able to get the time off. And yes, many more people now live in cities, making the rush back to the ol’ ancestral village a transportation nightmare. I’d also agree that workers, particularly folks in the middle class, have more bargaining power than they used to.

I’d even go along with abolishing Golden Week in favor of a much shorter Spring Festival holiday, but only if paid vacations were mandated by law and somehow guaranteed. There has been some recent noise about legislative movement in this direction.

But here’s the thing: the relationship between labor and management is not static. While it’s true that a middle class manager these days probably has little trouble scheduling a holiday, I bet it’s harder in some places than you might think, particularly if most of the workers you know toil away in the comforts of expatland in Shanghai.

Regardless of the present-day situation, what happens somewhere down the line when the labor market, as it inevitably will, tightens up, even for the middle class white collar guys? If that week-long holiday isn’t mandatory, eventually employers will, directly or indirectly, make sure that workers take less time off. Moreover, if faced with the choice of taking time off or getting another week’s wages, your average factory worker is going to take the money and run.

I’m not saying that employers are slave drivers. But look what has happened to the vacation in the U.S. The labor market there has been tight for practically my entire life, and I know that in many professions, including law by the way, the folks who take off all their vacation days end up billing fewer hours and are, in the eyes of some hard-ass partners, seen as less than 100% committed to their jobs. Your average no vacation, three divorces and two heart attacks workaholic is the guy who gets promoted, not the fellow who takes a week in Orlando with the family, diligent though he may be the rest of the year.

Moreover, I don’t see social media in the U.S. “shaming” these employers into curtailing these internal practices, and of course the U.S. doesn’t really have effective labor unions any more. When the economy is slow, people will do anything to keep their jobs; when workers are poor, they will do almost anything to get more hours.

If you do away with Golden Week without mandating a substitute, eventually that time off will disappear. Good for the corporate bottom line, but a bad deal for labor.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of China’s Golden Week

  1. fdawei

    Stan, I agree with you. I think the key argument against Gordon Orr’s thesis is that Spring festival is a Traditional Chinese holiday. Once we begin to tinker with important traditional holidays, each with special days of the week devoted to a form of family unity and devotion that follows a tradition of thousands of years, we mandate the holiday into irrelevance.
    Certainly the many Chinese I have worked with during my nearly 16 years in the country highly anticipate the reunion with their families, many of whom see each other only once a year. Also given the distances some must travel to return to their homes in remote towns or villages, how cruel it would be to curtail the Golden Week holiday, however difficult it is for many to even buy a train ticket. Can you imagine standing for 18 hours or sitting on a miniscule stool for the same length of time? But many brave the inconvenience for their family reunion to reignite the spirit of the holiday and the special foods and local traditions associated with it.

  2. Marius Van Andel

    For what it is worth, I hate the holiday. Any holiday. I loved living in Jerusalem when on Fridays you could go to the Christian Quarter, Saturdays to the Muslim Quarter and Sundays to the Jewih Quarter to find Normality!

    The American/Canadian system is the best. Just mandate the number of days and let everybody pick their dates.

    Just wait 5 more years, and another doubling of cars on the road and the Chinese will give “Le Samedi Noir” (black Saturday) a whole new meaning!

  3. SeekTruthFromFacts

    It’s possible to have flexible days off without employees over-working – the whole of Europe does it. You simply have to give the workers protection to counter-balance management power.
    So EU law mandates time off work as a health and safety issue.* Workers cannot “take the money and run” or ruin their family life in order to get promoted. Protecting their time off is good for them and for wider society (starting with their children). The relevant laws are generally enforced. Interestingly, the gap between GDP per capita in developed EU countries and in the US is almost entirely due to Americans working longer hours.
    The Golden Weeks give workers a blunt tool to protect themselves. If China had reliable rule of law, flexible and protected time off could benefit everyone.

    Of course, this argument assumes that the policy is genuinely about giving people the rest they deserve (rather than, say, boosting the tourist industry).

    *http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_Time_Directive