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Tourists from Hubei Province pose for photos in Chinese emperors clothing during the Lunar New Year holiday at the start of the ‘Year of the Dragon’ in Beijing on January 27, 2012.
Chinese leaders want the country’s workers to try out something they seldom do: take a vacation.
China will “implement the system of paid vacation” within the next year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced in his opening speech at the Chinese legislature’s annual planning sessions on Monday.
The announcement comes roughly a month after the southwestern municipality of Chongqing explained the suspicious disappearance of its former police chief by saying he was suffering exhaustion and had decided to undergo “vacation-style treatment” – a phrase quickly taken up by Chinese Internet users, many of whom jokingly wondered why only government officials were afforded such luxuries.
While Mr. Wen didn’t offer details on the government’s vacation plans, experts within the tourism industry say his statement was meant to enforce legislation that was introduced in 2008, which promised between five and 15 days days of paid annual leave a year to workers depending on how long they’ve worked.
Many Chinese workers have been too fearful of losing their jobs to take allotted paid leave so the government is stepping in to protect them, said Gu Huimin, an associate dean at the school of tourism management at Beijing International Studies University. Ensuring that workers get enough rest and recuperation, Ms. Gu noted, has the added benefit of giving them more time to travel and shop — a good way to help the government achieve its goal of boosting domestic consumption.
So-called leisure consumption in China reached $338 billion in 2010, up 14% from a year earlier, according to the most recent study on travel from China’s National Tourism Administration and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
But it could be more, the study said. Of the 2441 workers surveyed, 55% said they’d never taken paid vacation and 24% said they occasionally enjoyed the benefit. Only 22% said they used their vacation every year.
Leaders also likely believe that time off will help relieve some of the physical and psychological pressure that China’s labor force has faced in the country’s breakneck pursuit of economic growth, Ms. Gu said, adding that a more rested worker population might help stabilize Chinese society.
A rash of strikes at manufacturing plants earlier this year and suicides at factories belonging Apple supplier Foxconn in 2010 have raised concerns about the health of the country’s workers and the environments in which they work each day.
Most factory workers and low-skilled laborers in China only leave work during major holidays. Many only take time off during Chinese New Year, a long holiday that gives migrant workers enough time to travel home.
Over the past several years, Chinese leaders have been working to give migrant workers and other employees more time for travel, tweaking their country’s public holidays by combining holidays that had once been sporadically spread out and creating back-to-back days off for long journeys.
Even if vacation is encouraged and enforced, it doesn’t mean workers will use it to spend their money, some experts warn. Consumers in the middle class still face stiff competition and an imperfect social security that prevents them from feeling comfortable about spending their cash, Wei Xiang, a tourism industry analyst told the state-owned Global Times last year.
“There is still an array of problems for the middle class,” the newspaper quoted Mr. Wei as saying. “They can afford to spend money on leisure but don’t always do so.”
– Laurie Burkitt. Follow her on Twitter @lburkitt