At last, weekends to karaoke about

PEKING DAYS

For the past year, living in China has posed the extra challenge of coping with weekends "with Chinese characteristics". Every Saturday morning, the nation has drowsily scratched its head and tried to remember whether it was a "Big Weekend" (Saturday and Sunday off work) or a "Small Weekend" (only Sunday). The World Bank once referred to the country's "half- reformed economy", but for the past 13 months we have all been struggling with "half- reformed weekends".

Now, at last, China is about to embrace that wonderfully bourgeois concept, the Regular Weekend. From 1 May, workers move to a five-day, 40-hour week. Some hitherto unknown top-level "Make Saturdays Special" lobby has won the day, and the cities' karaoke saloons will soon be pulsating with the thank-god-it's-Friday brigade.

In the good old days of the Marxist proletarian work ethic, things were different. China's cadres and government employees were all on six-day, Monday-to-Saturday schedules. Not all those hours were spent working; the traditional Communist day included ample time for xiuxi (resting), and the weekly timetable would cover everything from political education to compulsory exercise.

Saturday afternoon was the time for those Chinese working for foreigners to make a weekly report on the aliens' activities. The question of weekends was not that pressing. There were only limited forms of entertainment available away from one's all-powerful work-unit.

Last year's cut in working hours was thus a significant, ideological breakthrough - albeit rather a confusing one. The government decided alternate Saturdays would become non-working days - making every second weekend a real two-day event - a "Big Weekend". The difficulty was keeping track of which was which. Banks, government offices and factories would be open one Saturday, and closed the next. Many a time frustrated customers would wait in vain for an office to open.

Lest anyone think "Big Weekends" were meant to be about quality leisure time, the official Xinhua news agency soon put them right. Chinese workers would have "more time for [political] study, educating their children and taking care of their household chores," it announced. The new rules would "definitely further motivate workers' enthusiasm and initiative in the building up of socialism".

So from 1 May, Le Weekend will be with us permanently, and we will have even more time for building up socialism (except for China's 900 million peasants, who are not covered by the new rules). More pertinently, the Ministry of Labour estimates the five-day working week will create a million much-needed urban jobs. Embarrassingly, the shorter week is an admission that Communism's long hours never fed through to productivity; when hours were cut last year, output went up.

How does China's new urban leisure class plan to spend its extra free time? In contrast to Britain, there has no argument over shop-opening hours. Any suggestion that shops should not be thronging with customers on Saturdays and Sundays would be ridiculed. Indeed, in China's consumer society, the weekend is virtually synonymous with the shopping opportunity.

After the shops, watching television is the favoured pursuit. Zhu Minwen, a joint-venture company employee, stays at home at the weekend "because I do not want to miss the exciting highlight shows of Italian club football". Like many urbanites, Mr Zhu also owns a karaoke video player for domestic singalongs. Those with fatter wallets are spoilt for choice, with mega- discos, restaurants and fancy business clubs. A regular two-day weekend also will allow the Chinese to explore a bit more of their own country; the number of domestic tourists is expected to jump by 50 million this year.

One elderly college professor friend, Mr Wu - nicknamed "the Old Playboy" by students - has no plans to change his routine. Saturday afternoon is for ping-pong, followed by occasional bridge sessions. Sunday afternoon he takes his VIP membership card and heads for a luxury snooker club, where he enjoys several uncompetitive rounds.

But there are limits. "My wife, who is getting old, wishes that I could stay in her company more often, which is quite understandable."

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