When the World Leisure Games open in the port city of Qingdao on Saturday, with a song and dance extravaganza by 2,400 citizens celebrating China's tradition of dancing in public squares, they will be happening in a country where most people don't, or can't, take paid vacations – despite having the right to.
More than 72 percent of working Chinese have not taken a paid vacation in the last three years, Xinhua, the state news agency, reported recently, although the Constitution recognizes the right of all working people "to rest" and state labor regulations specify the right to paid leave.
Fewer than 14 percent of Chinese workers took one paid vacation in the last three years, while just under 8 percent took three. Among the reasons, according to Xinhua, which compiled its figures from an online poll: Workers "don't dare" (22 percent), "don't have the time" (22 percent) or "don't want to because it would affect their future development" (nearly 10 percent).
Government officials and employees of state-run companies, as well as employees of foreign companies, were the most likely to take a paid vacation. Private Chinese companies, especially smaller ones, had the worst record for granting employees paid time off, Xinhua said.
In the city of Shenyang in northeastern China on Wednesday, workers at a hot-pot restaurant kowtowed to their bosses, shouting: "Thank you, boss, for the work!"
Officials appear worried about the punishing hours to which workers are subjected — but, judging by a notice issued last month by the State Council, that is mostly because they hope more free time will translate into more tourist consumption.
In the notice, titled "Opinions on Further Stimulating Investment and Boosting Consumption in the Tourist Industry," the council called on companies to grant their workers a two-and-a-half day weekend.
Under council regulations that took effect in 2008, all Chinese workers with up to 10 years of service are entitled to five days of paid annual vacation beginning after one full year of work. Workers with 10 to 20 years of service are allowed 10 days of vacation and there should be 15 days for those who have completed 20 years.
The regulations were drawn up, it says, "to safeguard employees' right to rest and take leave, and mobilize their work enthusiasm."
The council's logic might have been familiar to the Situationists, a Marxist-inspired movement in Europe in the 1960s whose members believed the concept of leisure was about creating "forced consumption," part of a capitalist system that aimed to make a commodity out of even free time, selling it to workers as compensation for their loss of real freedom. "Leisure is working," the movement argued.
The World Leisure Games are held every five years by the World Leisure Organization, founded in New York in 1952 in response to concerns that industrialization and urbanization were depriving people of safe and clean sites for leisure activities. The games this year are supported by the China National Tourism Administration and China Tourism Association and feature 17 competitions, including fishing, golfing, ocean swimming, cycling and martial arts.