The recent death of a woman who worked in one of China’s top tech companies has sparked outrage about toxic work culture in the country, leading to a new wave of social media posts from people sharing their own experiences and calling for an end to exploitative practices.
In December, an employee of Chinese e-commerce company Pinduoduo suddenly collapsed after staying in the office until 1:30 a.m., and died following failed resuscitation attempts. The incident was widely viewed as an effect of the company’s intense work environment. Pinduoduo confirmed her death in a post on microblogging site Weibo but did not provide more details. “We love you, and miss you dearly,” the statement reads.
Then, on Saturday, an engineer at Pinduoduo killed himself in his home after taking a leave from work, sparking even more fury as some people attributed his death to the company’s work culture, although this has not been confirmed.
The following day, an ex-employee in the same company posted a video alleging that some employees are expected to work at least 380 hours a month — that’s at least 12 hours a day, every day — and recounting a time he witnessed a colleague boarding an ambulance right outside their office building. While it has not been confirmed that the man in the ambulance was overworked, the video quickly went viral on Weibo and has been shared almost 300,000 times as of writing. The former employee later said that he was asked to resign after posting about the incident on social media. In response, Pinduoduo explained in another Weibo post that the employee was sacked for “publishing ‘extreme opinions’ on an anonymous online community,” which violated the company’s employee code of conduct.
Following these events, the “996” work hour system is under scrutiny once again. 996 — a term that has come to encapsulate the demanding environment in Chinese offices — is a reference to work hours that last from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, without overtime pay.
One reason for the rampant overworking in China is weak law enforcement. Under the country’s labor laws, employees should not be made to work more than eight hours a day or an average of 44 hours a week. The amount of overtime work is also limited to three hours a day or 36 hours a month. Yet, 996 work hours pervade workplaces, especially in the tech industry. In a controversial Weibo post, business magnate Jack Ma even endorsed the practice, saying that “if we find things we like, 996 is not a problem.”
Cut-throat competition between Chinese tech firms are another major factor. “These companies, especially the e-commerce ones, are undergoing an intense competition with each other,” Aidan Chau, a researcher at Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization China Labour Bulletin, told VICE World News. “So basically, working overtime is commonplace.”
996 culture is also closely related to what Chinese online communities call “involution.” Originally conceived by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “involution” in a sociological sense refers to a situation where technological advancement in a society is no longer reflected in improved living standards among its people. In recent years, the term has been adapted to describe the cut-throat competition in the education system and workforce.
For Yeming*, a university student in China who intends to seek employment in the tech industry, involution and the 996 culture are inevitable sources of worry. “The level of ‘involution’ in China is simply too high, so I intend to leave the country,” Yeming said, adding that he would avoid 996 culture if he could.
According to Mimi Zou, a fellow in Chinese commercial law at the University of Oxford, the dog-eat-dog environment that has come to characterize Chinese workplaces is a result of significant changes in the country’s labor market in recent years. “In this context, employers’ and employees’ expectations, including commitment to the job or company, have also altered in a market-oriented economy,” she told VICE World News.
The mismatched expectations are also accompanied by China’s big tech boom. “China’s private sector economy is fast-paced, dynamic, and in many areas, intensely competitive. The lucrative and rapidly expanding internet services sector amplifies these characteristics, taking them to a whole other level,” Matthew Brennan, a China-based tech analyst and co-founder of digital marketing consultancy China Channel, told VICE World news.
As the tech industry’s toxic work culture gains prominence in the public consciousness, there is now greater pushback from Chinese employees. In 2019, a GitHub-based protest movement called 996.ICU saw software developers challenging the exploitative practices that run rampant in the industry (ICU is short for Intensive Care Unit). In the 996.ICU GitHub repository, people shared workplace anecdotes, exposed unreasonably demanding tech companies, and designed a software license that forces companies to comply with local labor laws.
Despite such isolated incidents of activism, however, Brennan thinks that the culture of overworking in China is “unlikely” to subside anytime soon. “Business in China’s internet industry is conducted like a brutal guerrilla war in which developers, engineers, and operations staff work themselves to death under grueling schedules in which speed of execution is everything,” he said.
And in this system, tech employees are often “willing to be chewed up and spat out of the system by their mid-30s in exchange for generous compensation or the chance to strike it rich with an IPO.”
And it’s not just tech companies. Besides unreasonably long hours, underperforming employees in other industries are also subjected to bizarre punishments, of which public humiliation is commonplace. For example, underperforming employees at a home furnishing company in Shaanxi province were forced to have their photos taken while holding large signs that read “freeloader award.” The employees were then made to share the photos on their social media accounts. In another case, male employees at an unidentified company in Zhejiang province who failed to meet performance standards reportedly had to dance around the office clad in black pantyhose. One employee who refused to participate was fired. Other punishments include the forced consumption of revolting things such as raw bitter gourd, toilet water, and even live worms.
A look at Chinese history reveals the use of public humiliation by those in power as a tool to regulate the behavior of the masses — from imperial times to the Cultural Revolution era. “Public enemies” were degraded in theatrical ways, such as being paraded around in cages and making public confessions. Even today, Chinese citizens are no strangers to public shaming.
Despite laws that were designed to safeguard workers’ rights, actual labor protection remains sorely lacking in China’s workplaces. This is due to a host of reasons, including costly and lengthy legal processes, governmental suppression of labor activism, and peer pressure.
“Chinese people generally think 996 culture is harmful,” Yeming said, “but tend to suffer in silence rather than speak up.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.