China's New Year Holiday That Isn't

Commuters queue for buses in the central business district of Beijing Photograph by Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

You think it’s difficult to head back to work after New Year’s Day? Spare a moment for office workers in China, who face an eight-day stretch of workdays when they return from their New Year’s holiday.

In a bizarre bureaucratic beginning to 2013, Chinese office workers will be taking off several days at the start of the year and then paying for it by spending the weekend at their desks. Jan. 1 is always a public holiday in China, even though the traditional Chinese New Year isn’t until later in January or February. (The Year of the Snake doesn’t begin till Feb. 10 this year.) In a move that has left employers and employees puzzled, however, the Chinese government announced in December that workers would start January by taking off on Jan. 2 and 3.

That might sound like a good deal. Those days aren’t real holidays, though: In order to have a long break that doesn’t cut into China’s economic growth, the government expects offices to stay reopen on Friday and remain open on Saturday and Sunday, hence making up for the two extra off days. So starting this Friday, white-collar workers face eight days of work before resuming their regular schedule.

Holidays that aren’t really holidays are not uncommon in China. The government often adds additional days to major holidays such as the Chinese New Year or the Oct. 1 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. As a result, Chinese workers have more of an opportunity to travel, shop, and spend during the break without the government having to sacrifice workdays from the year.

This latest calendar change is especially puzzling, though. Usually people know well in advance about holidays and makeup days, but this time they found out about the Jan. 2 and 3 holiday only last month. Moreover, if the government wanted to give people some extra time off, why not make Monday, Dec. 31 a holiday? That way workers could have a long weekend rather than showing up at the office for one day.

As with many policy decisions in China, though, there’s no way to question the bureaucrats’ reasoning. “Most baffling to everybody is how anyone who is human would make this decision,” says one entrepreneur in Beijing who asks to remain anonymous because Chinese officials, following reports by Bloomberg News and the New York Times about the fortunes of the country’s Communist elite, are more thin-skinned than usual about public criticism.

“At the end of the five-day workweek, if people are doing their job, they are usually tired out and not functioning as optimally as at the start,” says this businessperson. “After six days, they are really dropping in terms of efficiency. At the end of an 8-day work week people are just limping through.” One possible explanation for the rearranged holiday schedule is that the government wanted offices working away on Dec. 31 to boost the economic output numbers for 2012 as much as possible.

The New Year holiday-that’s-not-a-holiday comes at a time when China’s new top leader is trying to show he understands the need to minimize the way Chinese officialdom often inconveniences the country’s population. For instance, Xi Jinping wants to reduce the number of official motorcades that cause traffic congestion in Beijing. And as reported last month, the official Xinhua news agency says the Party is calling for the elimination of red carpets, expensive banners, traffic blockades, and other ostentatious displays of power “in order to remain close with the public.” Xinhua added: “The style of officials, particularly top officials, has an important impact upon the style of the Party and the style of the government and even on the whole of society.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.