May Day in China: Super Bad Barter

More and more people in China are fed up with the statutory holiday regulations. Because for a free May 1st they have to work an extra Sunday.

A large crowd gathers in Tiananmen Square, where a portrait of Sun Yat-sen hangs, during May Day.

People in Tiananmen Square on April 30, 2023 Photo: Andy Wong/dpa/ap

It is not without a certain irony that Labor Day is an extremely unpopular holiday in the self-proclaimed workers’ paradise – even though the Chinese have even had three days off around this date since 2019.

The frustration is based on a state-enforced barter: In order for the employees to get this longer holiday, they have to work the Sunday before and after the May holiday. The intention of the communist party leadership is based less on the recovery of their workers and more on the well-being of the national economy: the so-called “golden weeks” are intended to boost tourism and domestic consumption.

For most Chinese, on the other hand, the first few days of May are anything but enjoyable: Since a large part of the 1.4 billion inhabitants will be travelling, not only are train and plane tickets practically sold out, but hotels are also many times more expensive. Even in smaller provincial towns, spartan single rooms easily cost the equivalent of 150 euros per night during the holidays, only a week later they can be had again for a fifth of that.

A recent online survey by the state China Newsweek sums up the frustration of Chinese employees in numbers: Only 11,000 users stated that they were in favor of the legally prescribed “compensation weekends”. Almost 90,000 users, on the other hand, reject Sunday services for longer holidays.

Frustration erupts on the internet

As every year, the pent-up anger of the Chinese is being vented on the Internet these days. “The legal regulation is not intended to give people a break, but to contribute to the economy,” writes a poster on the online platform Weibo. Another says angrily against the politicians who decide on the holiday regulations: “The Chinese people finally need rest: more holidays and less corruption”.

The anger of the people’s soul is also blazing because the employees in China are hardly entitled to days off anyway. In addition to the statutory holidays, they are only entitled to five days of vacation per year by law. And in many cases these are not even fully used up due to anticipatory obedience to the boss. The social pressure in the office to appear as a slacker is too great – and get on the company’s hit list.

The majority of the approximately 20 public holidays falls on the three annual “golden weeks”. If a public holiday is not on a Sunday anyway, it must be compensated for by days before or after work. At the same time, in the age of globalization and social media, more and more Chinese are realizing that many parts of the world have significantly more extensive holiday entitlements.

So it’s no wonder that the urban youth in East Asian countries idealizes the Scandinavian countries in particular, with their work-life balance on display, as a utopian dream destination. This is in stark contrast to the working culture of Chinese companies, which can be summed up as “9-9-6”: toiling away in the open-plan office from morning to nine at night, six days a week.

Despite the burn-out of many Chinese, little is likely to change in the circumstances for the time being: China bans strikes, and in the communist-ruled country they are punished with prison terms. Establishing independent trade unions is also a punishable offence. The official unions installed by the party, on the other hand, propagate a message to their members that is in no way inferior to the Protestant business ethic: work hard in the interests of the state!

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