Forget the power, let us celebrate

Civic Action,Inclusive Politics11 Jun 2013Yu Chen

It was a beautiful sunny Sunday morning when I received my mother’s call from China while contemplating my first blog about China as an “emerged power”.

Mum is in her early seventies and has spent her whole life in my hometown, in a small county in the northwest corner of Chongqing, a municipality almost twice the size of the Netherlands, with a population of 29.36 million distributed over 82,403 km2. Mum’s only connection to the outside world is CCTV (China’s Central Television) of which she is a loyal viewer. Although Mum knows that I use a thing called “internet” instead of a phone to call her and another thing called “QQ” (the most popular instant messaging service in China) instead of post to let my sister show my pictures to her, she considers it her duty to keep me posted on what is happening in China since I have now disappeared somewhere 11 hours flight away. Mum’s news summary included some big news about my country, for example, our new president Xi Jin Ping promised us great attention to environmental protection and no mercy for corrupt officials. “We have established a development bank together with other four countries using golden bricks,” she told me (she actually meant the BRICS Development Bank, but the official Chinese translation of BRICS as 金砖 (jin zhuan) which means golden bricks misled her). She is very curious about what this bank looks like by the way. And President Xi has been busy visiting many foreign countries accompanied by his beautiful singer wife Mrs. Peng Liyuan. Mum asked me whether he had also been to Amsterdam. I said not yet.

Before she ended her call, Mum asked, “Do you remember it is our Chinese Dragon Boat Festival in several days? Do you celebrate it there?”

The Dragon Boat Festival (端午节, duanwu jie) is one of the most important Chinese traditional festivals, commonly held to commemorate the death of poet Qu Yuan of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States Period. It occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, falling on 12th June this year. Eating zongzi (steamed sticky rice and various fillings wrapped in bamboo or reef leaves), drinking xionghuang jiu (realgar wine) and racing dragon boats constitute the focus of the celebrations. I actually did not remember at all, but I knew it coming because, for the last couple of weeks, I had heard people on Weibo, Twitter’s equivalent in China, groaning at the coming 7-day working week due to the rearrangement of the weekend for a 3-day Dragon Boat Holiday, and worrying about the seemingly inevitable awful traffic and terrible crowds.

Holidays have been less appealing and more trouble to Chinese citizens since more of them have been able to afford long distance travel, and especially since 1999 when the government started a national holiday system called ‘Golden Week’ to encourage domestic consumption. According to this initiative, three days of paid holiday are given for National Day (1st Oct), Labour Day (1st May, the application of Golden Week rule to it was discontinued in 2008), and Spring Festival (the first day of the first month in Chinese lunar calendar), and the surrounding weekends are rearranged so that workers in the Chinese government and companies have seven continuous days of holiday.

The past ten years have witnessed an upturn in retail sales, retail prices and consumer confidence according to official statistics for almost each ‘Golden Week’, while since 2005, there has been stronger and stronger evidence that this holiday system is disrupting the regular economy and year by year losing its potential of working magic on numbers. What is the most disappointing and annoying is not the sluggish holiday economy itself. In 2012, the government announced that national highways would be toll free during Golden Week, and as a result 86 million people travelled by road during the National Day holiday (a 13% increase compared to the previous year) and thousands of cars got stuck in highway traffic jams. Other travelers were reported to be annoyed by lengthy queues, chronic overcrowding and unexpected charges. After finally surviving an exhausting holiday, many were found dozing out at their office desks… Dragon Boat Holiday is not one of the Golden Weeks, but shares all the characteristics of this ‘holiday syndrome’.

But what is wrong with Chinese government riding the ‘holiday economy’ train? It has a duty to achieve growth, after all. What is wrong with Chinese shopping malls luring customers and keeping their doors open till midnight? They have to make a profit, after all. What is wrong with holiday hordes flooding to the Great Wall? They have a right to have fun, after all. Everybody can play innocent. However, this “holiday economy” train needs not only an engine, but also rails, brakes, seats and service to ensure that the passengers enjoy their trip. No matter how much a country is leading the world in the race for GDP growth, offering generous development funding to its poverty-torn counterparts, making a commitment that, if fulfilled, may bring a big change to the planet, is it really a country with power if it cannot allow its people free will and comfortable space to celebrate their festivals, to enjoy moments of peace and joy during their limited public holidays? Or, does that power really matter?

Mum was still waiting for my answer. I said, “Yes, I remember, and we celebrate it here.” “This is good,” Mum smiled on the phone, “too many people in the street, I will stay at home with your sister and nephew, but we will also celebrate.”

Wait a moment. Forget the power. Make a parcel of zongzi, pour a glass of xionghuang jiu, set a drum in a decorative dragon boat, let us salute our deceased poet Qu Yuan. Let us celebrate, today.