Is China Taking Its Nose off the Grindstone?

Is China Taking Its Nose off the Grindstone?

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Why you should care

Excessive work in China isn’t good for Chinese people, the environment or the rest of us.

Work less. Play more. Spend more. That’s not how China managed to surpass Japan and become the world’s second-largest economy in just one generation of fast growth. It’s more like: nose to the grindstone, long hours, cheap wages, save and invest everything.

So it may come as a surprise that China’s trying to emulate European-style vacations. At least, that’s what it sounds like. A recent memo from the powerful State Council, the highest level of government, urged Chinese companies to send their workers home at noon on Fridays, thereby introducing the

four-and-a-half-day workweek.

It’s a dramatic shift from the old days, says Nicholas Lardy, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “People used to work at state enterprise, 8, 9, 10 hours a day, six days a week,” he says. Now the idea is to send people home for long weekends so they can spend more money. The new policy won quite a lot of applause on Chinese social media … and a few jokes. “Don’t look for work, don’t go to the office, every day’s a holiday!” commented one reader in reaction to the directive. For others, it produced a bit of cynicism. After all, for many the six-day workweek is still the norm and a five-day work week but a dream. “Let’s first get weekends off, and then we can talk about this,” said one comment. That, it turns out, is the biggest complaint.

The prospect of such a policy raises a key question: spend money on what? The workaholic nation has traditionally focused on productivity, not places to play. So the State Council is also urging more investment, especially in tourist facilities. Highlights include 57,000 tourist toilets in the next three years, not to mention better hotels, parking facilities and cracking down on “false advertising, price gouging, bullying, cutthroat price competition” and other ills. New airports, hot springs, ski resorts, boating tours. It’s a long list.

Not everyone is cheering. After all, old ideas die hard. “Work hard, build the motherland,” also got quite a lot of shares, though it’s hard to tell if the comment meant to be mocking, since the point of the policy is to build the country by playing. Lardy wonders if companies will actually pay their workers for that afternoon off. Nonetheless, “have fun, spend money” is a sign of the times, as China’s production of big-ticket items like steel and cement or the hectic pace of erecting new buildings slows down. To keep the economy growing, wages will have to keep rising and consumers will have to spend more and more, and it might be happening. Good for the Chinese, but it doesn’t help the rest of the world much, as imports to support Chinese manufacturing fall.

Four-and-a-half-day workweek. Maybe the U.S. could take a pointer.

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