In China, Working on the Weekends Isn’t Just for Overachievers

by Will Solomon
February 18, 2014

I think I can speak for most Americans when I say that we consider weekends to be holy. For many, weekends are literally a time to pay homage to a higher power. For others, weekends are the time we use to decompress after a hard week at work and prepare for the next one to come. With that in mind, how would you feel if the US government one year dictated that of the three weekdays designated off for Christmas holiday, only one would actually be considered a National holiday? The other two days you would need to make up the Sunday before and the Saturday after the holiday.

The above scenario is frequently the case in China. For example, the official public holiday schedule for the recent Chinese New Year was from January 31st through February 6th (seven consecutive days). However, only three of those seven days were actually considered national holidays. Therefore, employees were expected to work Sunday, January 26th and Saturday, February 8th.

Most Chinese people I ask agree that it is necessary to have the string of consecutive days off so that they have time to travel to visit their families in their respective hometowns that are scattered across China. To them, working on a Saturday or Sunday is common practice and while they certainly don’t look forward to it, they consider it the price to be paid for consecutive days off.

I argue that China manages to get the whole country to acquiesce to this system in large part due to the fact that China is a forced secular society. Religion does not come into play here, so government decision makers are free to take weekend days away.

Expats that work for American and other international companies in China often aren’t forced to work the weekends and rather just get extra time off. However, those expats working at Chinese companies or with a mainly Chinese staff are typically expected to play by China’s rules. It would set a bad example for Chinese colleagues if expats not only got their own country’s holidays off, but also extra days during their host country’s holidays.

Looking beyond the annoyance caused by having to work the weekends, the other tangible issue with this system is that during peak holiday times, the entire country migrates out of the coastal cities in unison. The Chinese news agency, Xinhua, estimated a staggering 3.62 billion trips were made throughout China over the week-long New Years celebration. This figure includes more than 258 million people that traveled via train, which is around 83% of America’s entire population. To put things into perspective, Amtrak typically sees around 30 million passengers… annually. Even the thought of traveling with that many people is almost enough to give me a panic attack, hence why I have remained in Beijing for the past four consecutive New Years holidays.

A glimpse into the subway the afternoon before the Chinese New Year vacation

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