For years, China’s booming internet sector has symbolized the innovative spirit in its economy. But a grueling work culture is exhausting a generation of young tech professionals. What does this mean for China’s future?
“Does the job require working overtime?” The job candidate posed this question to Li Rui just as the interview was reaching an end. Li answered with his own question: “How do you define overtime?”
Li, a 34-year-old pre-sales engineer for a Chinese tech company, believes job candidates should focus on clearly defining and completing their work tasks. The question of whether they need to work beyond the statutory working time of eight hours per day really depends on how they apply themselves.
The rapid growth of China’s internet sector over the past 20 years has fueled the idea that it offers huge development chances for young professionals. The fairy tale of opportunity has given an aura of legitimacy to a grueling work schedule for the vast majority of techemployees. The so-called “996” work schedule, meaning 12-hours days worked 6 days a week, has become a point of debate recently.
Problems facing tech professionals reflect an imbalance in China's tech sectors. For the most part China’s IT industry has focused on low-end development of application products, as opposed to engaging in higher-end technology research and development. The push for the quick turnaround of new products and a low entry threshold has brought a flood of so-called “coding workers” into the sector – workers who can be exploited but have little capacity for innovative development.
In defending their rights against companies and the government, employees in the tech industry have few options. In China, work unions are not independent organizations formed freely by employees, and work unions established by them without government approval are considered illegal. And the threshold for defending one’s rights is high, whether in terms of legal costs or personal time and energy.
Li Rui’s employer, ChinaSoft International, is a Chinese IT service provider that earned over 10 billion yuan in revenue in 2018. Its clients include the likes of Microsoft, Huawei and China Mobile. Li Rui’s job, which requires frequent travel around the world, is to offer consultation, training or solutions on the basis of customer requirements. As he sat down for a 1AM interview with Echowall in late October, Li had just completed a “triple flight” taking him from Beijing to London, then back to Hong Kong. His flight for Shanghai was due to depart in six hours. “For me, there is no such thing as working overtime,” said Li. His life, he said, is an endless stream of work and study that continues around the clock.
“Even when I’m sitting on the toilet, I’m thinking about the requirements of my customers. When I dream, I dream about meetings.”
Such work patterns are not at all rare in China’s internet industry. Over the past two decades, the internet has developed at a sweltering pace in China, becoming a strong source of economic growth. According to the 2018 Digital China Development Report, the scale of China’s digital economy reached 31.3 trillion yuan by the end of 2018, accounting for one-third of total GDP. The internet industry has attracted 16.77 million people, with an average annual salary of 140,000 yuan (18,000 euro) — twice the national average and putting them at the top of all industries. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the average wage for employees at “companies of designated size” (meaning those with annual income above 20 million yuan) was just 68,000 yuan in 2018.
The price of high income for the industry is common and frequent overtime work. There is a saying shared widely across the internet profession in China: “On the work shift 996, to the ICU when I get sick.” Here, “996” refers to the practice of going to work at 9AM, getting off work at 9PM, and working six days per week. The bitter joke among programmers is that they must work with such high intensity that when they do fall ill it will be serious enough to require treatment in the Intensive Care Unit.
On March 26, 2019, a Chinese programmer took to Github, the world’s largest online community for programmers, and launched a project called “996.ICU” to speak out against the 996 work schedule. The project has so far received nearly 250,000 stars (similar to Facebook “likes”), and has triggered attention and discussion of this pressing issue.
In a poll organized as part of the project, employees were asked to rank major internet firms in terms of work culture, resulting in a “black list” of companies with poor conditions and a “white list” of companies with more favorable conditions. Domestic Chinese internet companies such as Alibaba, Huawei and ChinaSoft all made it onto the “996 companies black list,” while those companies on the “white list” were mostly foreign enterprises.
The movement against the 996 work schedule soon quieted down inside China as the internet companies running web browsers like Qihoo 360 and QQ instructed programmers to block access to links on the issue. People in the industry quipped that Chinese programmers could only voice their support one day for anti-996 by adding their stars on GitHub, and the next day work overtime to implement related restrictions.
In April last year, Jack Ma, the founder of the tech giant Alibaba, responded in the company’s internal work practices by defending long hours and suggesting that employees should feel gratitude. “996 is a blessing for all of us [in the industry],” he said. “There are many people who would like to work 996 but don’t get the chance.”
“Young people need to understand,” said Ma, quoting Chinese leader Xi Jinping, “that ‘happiness comes through hard work.”
Jack Ma’s remarks obviously fly in the fact of China’s Labor Law, which stipulates that employees must not work more than eight hours a day, or 44 hours a week. Overtime work should not exceed three hours per day, or 36 hours a month. The 996 work schedule extends total work time to at least 72 hours per week, far exceeding the time allowed by law.
Why did Jack Ma, China’s richest individual, callously suggest that 996 is a “blessing”? His comments are part of a process of rationalization in the industry that makes grueling work schedules about productivity and progress. But studies have revealed that long working hours affect not only the physical and mental health of the employees, but also reduce productivity. Behind his statement lies a range of problems that have accumulated along with China’s rapid economic growth over the past few decades, including poor protection of workers’ legal rights and autocratic leadership.
Striking Out “Strike” in China’s Labor Union Law
After the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, it implemented a six-day work week that was in effect for a long period of time. Finally, in 1995, a five-day work week was established as China sought to enter the World Trade Organization. It was also in 1995 that China implemented its first labor law.
Aside from government bodies and public institutions, however, many private companies continue to implement six-day work weeks, and overtime work is common. Rarely does anyone in China complain about working overtime – whether the migrant worker struggling to lift himself out of poverty, or the office worker struggling for a decent middle-class life. Only around 2010, when a series of suicides occurred among workers at the tech giant Foxconn in southern China, did Chinese people pay closer attention to the severe working conditions and excessive overtime that were commonplace in China’s factories.
Some workers tried fighting for their rights through strikes (often simply to get wages or welfare payments owed them by factory management). But the government regarded strikes and other actions as sources of instability, and workers faced police repression and arrest. The official work unions proved useless.
In China, work unions are not independent organizations formed freely by employees, and work unions established by them without government approval are considered illegal. Instead, unions are established by each company under a hierarchical network of local and regional union federations under the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The chairman of the company’s union is in fact a member of the corporate leadership team, and most of the union's funding comes from the company itself, making the union an appendage of the company. The work of company unions in turn is managed by the ACFTU, which lies under the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
If you search the more than 5,000 words of the Trade Union Law of the People’s Republic of China, nowhere will you find the word “strike.”
In China, work unions are not independent organizations formed freely by employees, and work un-ions established by them without government approval are considered illegal.
In July 2018, employees at Jasic Technology in Shenzhen, citing low wages, long hours and poor working conditions, demanded the right to establish their own legal union outside the company’s official union. Their actions met with fierce repression from the company, the local work union federation and police. In the year following the initial incident, more than 110 people were arrested, including workers, activists, reporters and students offering support. According to an analysis by Amnesty International, 53 people involved were still in detention as of August 2019. The Jasic case makes the government’s attitude towards labor protest and the formation of work unions abundantly clear.
The attitude Chinese businesspeople general have toward work unions can be glimpsed in the now Oscar-winning documentary film “American Factory,” which records how Cao Dewang, director of China’s Fuyao Glass Group, goes to the United States to invest in a new factory there. One of the most talked-about and debated threads in the story is how the Chinese investors attempted in various ways to keep their plant’s American employees from forming a work union. In a subsequent interview in The Beijing News, Cao said: “In the U.S., having a work union means no progress at all in terms of efficiency! If Chinese companies come up against work unions as they go abroad, [they should] turn right around and leave, not touching this at all!”
In an interview with Hong Kong’s Initium, Peking University professor Hu Yong referred to the development of Chinese companies over the past 30 years as a “fast-moving, severely compressed process.” In other words, China has compressed a process of industrial development taking hundreds of years in developed countries into the space of just a few decades. “The result is a façade of prosperity in front, while inside there only a void in the place where business ethics and work ethics should be, these having not been built up,” he said.
How many will take up the law to defend their rights when the company is unresponsive and the union refuses to help? As it turns out, only very few. Li Yingchun, a lawyer at Zhejiang’s Capital Equity Legal Group, wrote in an article on rights defense among Chinese that they often lack legal knowledge, and moreover do not have a strong sense of how to collect evidence in the workplace, which can make it difficult to provide supporting evidence for their claims in court.
The threshold for defending one’s rights is also high, whether this means the cost of hiring a lawyer or the cost in personal time and energy, and so those with complaints often feel the process is not worth it. When they turn to local labor department offices for assistance, they often find these departments have a poor sense of the law and little willingness to mediate. "As long as there aren’t cases of group rights protection or wages in arrears,” Li Yingchun writes, “some labor departments are of the attitude that the less trouble, the better,”.=
In fact, public opinion in Chinese society – including coverage by state-run media – has been quite supportive of the push against the 996 work schedule. But aside from empty rhetoric, little practical action has been taken by the government to change the status quo. So far, no activists have come forward in the movement to defend their rights through legal channels.
“Actions speak more honestly than words,” wrote Liu Yuanju, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law, in a commentary in April last year. “The attitude people have right now toward 996 suggests that the 996 [schedule] still fits with the realities of China’s current economic and social picture.” The fact that attitudes have not changes is perhaps the most awkward issue for the anti-996 movement to deal with.
No pain, No Gain
China, which first connected to the global Internet in 1994, has notched up countless internet milestones and success stories over the years. In 2000, three companies, Sina, Sohu and Netease became the first Chinese internet companies to launch on the Nasdaq exchange. The search engine operator Baidu, established in 2000, successfully listed in Nasdaq in 2005, realizing an income of over 300 million yuan that same year. China’s internet population surpassed 250 million in 2008, and ten years later soared past 800 million – 98 percent of these accessing the internet through mobile.
Needless to say, things in the industry have changed dramatically since 2004, when Chen Weida, an IT professional now working in the area of machine learning (a branch of AI), graduated with a major in applied mathematics at a top Chinese university. Some of his classmates went into finance, the highest-paid industry at the time, but Chen decided to join a multinational IT company. “The emergence of the internet is innovative in terms of both technology and forms of service, and I felt it pointed the way to future development,” Chen Weida said. As a fresh graduate, his monthly salary reached around 7,000-8,000 yuan at a time when the average annual income of Beijing residents was just 15,000 yuan.
The early 2000s were a time when internet industry talent was in extremely short supply. But the internet was already being touted on television, in newspapers and on popular web portals as the most promising industry for the future. Many parents encouraged their children to enroll in computer-related majors so they would have no difficulty finding jobs. This trend in education can be seen in the data. In 2002, among the ten majors with the highest admission scores at Shanghai Jiaotong University, one of the country’s top universities, three are related to computers — information security, information engineering, and computer science and technology.
Li Rui was admitted with a major in computer science and technology to a university in western China in 2004. He graduated in 2008 and joined a local software company, sharing a four-room suite with 16 other men and programming day and night. By the end of that same year, the number of Chinese internet users, often referred to as “netizens,” reached 290 million, surpassing the United States to make China the world’s largest internet population.
Before long Li Rui grew tired of the constant pressures of the job and the diminishing sense of achievement, and so he went to Great Britain to earn his master’s degree, also in computing. “Making a living wasn’t the only thing I wanted, “ he explains. After graduation, he worked at several multinational internet companies before finally joining ChinaSoft a few years ago.
Having worked in the field for nearly ten years, Li Rui has witnessed the skyrocketing development of the Chinese internet. Taking e-commerce as an example, total transaction volume in China increased from 3.14 trillion in 2008 to 31.63 trillion in 2018. By the end of 2018, the total number of internet users surpassed 829 million. Such rapid growth lends an aura of legitimacy to the 996 work schedule, supporting the idea that the Chinese, or even East Asian, work spirit of “no pain, no gain” is again proven right.
In an article last year, JD.com founder Richard Liu (Liu Qiangdong), another of China’s internet success stories, wrote in response to the debate over 996 that when his company was in the startup phase he worked from 8AM to 11PM Monday through Saturday, and spent another 8 hours working on Sundays. He said he had rested only two days a month. “I enjoy the thrill of the fight!” wrote Liu, whose personal fortune is now estimated at 8.8 billion dollars. “Those who laze away their days aren’t my brothers, only those who fight alongside me are!”