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Coders hard at work in China. Image by Maxime Guilbot available at Flickr.com under CC license.

12:42 pm | 18. February 2020

Working 996

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?

By Wu Jing

“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.

Key Points:

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.

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A screenshot of the “996.ICU” project at Github. The page begins by noting a 72-hour work week, and sharing relevant laws in China.

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.

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Alibaba founder Jack Ma. Photo by JD Lasica available at Flickr.com under CC license.

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!”

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A screenshot of the official trailer of the documentary “American Factory,” in which the Chinese boss complains about the output of employees at his factory in the U.S.

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!”

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JD.com founder Richard Liu speaks at the World Economic Forum in January 2018 about his experience in the online retail industry. Screenshot from video under CC license at Wikimedia Commons.

According to Hu Yong, the Peking University professor, Jack Ma and Liu Qiangdong have confused the personal development with corporate development. “If you are just starting a business, I think it is totally okay to say such things,” he said in an interview with Hong Kong’s Initium. “But once you are at the helm of a giant company, your relationship with employees can’t simply be reduced to, ‘We are brothers.’ Your relationship is that of employer to employee, and this relationship between labor and capital is mediated by labor laws.”

If the entire industry is developing at a rapid pace, however, it is possible for individuals to share in a company’s development by dint of hard work – a prospect people like Li Rui might be said to illustrate. “As long as you put in the time,” says Li, “you will grow faster than your peers.” Over a ten-year period, Li’s salary grew by a factor of 25, he says.

Since 2010, the salary growth rate in China’s internet industry has stabilized at 10 percent. In 2016, the internet industry surpassed finance to become the highest paid. In a relatively low-wage, low-welfare China where real estate prices have skyrocketed, higher salaries, year-end bonuses, the prospect of advancement and higher social prestige are all inducements to continue working long hours.

In a relatively low-wage, low-welfare China where real estate prices have skyrocketed, higher salaries, year-end bonuses, the prospect of advancement and higher social prestige are all inducements to continue working long hours.

 

At the start of 2020, a user identifying himself as an employee at tech giant Huawei exposed his 2019 salary through the social media platform “Maimai,” saying he had earned more than one million yuan (about 131,000 euros). The employee revealed that the Huawei work culture is actually what he called “9106,” with work from 9AM to 10PM six nights a week. He said he found the schedule acceptable, and that he wasn’t always required to work six consecutive days, but sometimes had both Saturday and Sunday off.”

It should be added, however, that such high salaries are earned by only a very few programmers. In recent years, as more and more young people have entered the sector, a deep earning divide has emerged and widened in the profession.

The IT Pyramid

Wang Lan, a young professional born in 1990, stumbled her way into a job as a programmer. After graduating from high school in Hebei, she enrolled in a business administration program at university. But halfway through her junior year, Wang long interest. Her parents convinced her to drop out of university, reasoning that she could earn more money by joining them in their wholesale clothing business. The idea made sense to Wang Lan, who quit university and started working in the family business. In 2014, she married a former high school classmate. The next year, they moved to Beijing to seek work.

Wang Lan’s husband, who studied computer programming at university, found a job as a front-end engineer at a facial recognition company in Beijing, with a monthly salary of around 20,000 yuan. Without a degree, Wang Lan could earn only about 6,000 yuan a month in a customer service job at an online health services platform. In an expensive city like Beijing, things were tight. The couple could afford only a tiny apartment in Xisanqi, a community on the outskirts beyond the Fifth Ring Road. Xisanqi was close to Houchang Village, an area now referred to as “China’s New Silicon Valley” – and which had become a virtual colony of programmers thanks to its proximity to many internet firms.

Wang Lan had little experience with computers, but in her new service job she stared developing an interest in programming. In 2016, she resigned from the health services company and paid a course fee of 20,000 yuan to sign up for a fast-track training course on the programming language Python. Along with the rapid development of the internet industry, tech training schools were also becoming commonplace, drawing students with advertising slogans like, “Switch Careers with Zero Experience!” and “Enabling High Salaries for All Students!” In 2018, IT training was a 38.7 billion yuan market in China.

There were more than 100 students in Wang Lan’s Python course. Some of these were fresh graduates from vocational schools hoping to brush up on the latest programming skills, while others were newbies like Wang, there to explore a new interest in programming. The training course was designed to push students within six months to learn the skills picked up in college programs over four years. This meant a tough schedule of self-directed study daily from 9AM to noon, classes from 2PM to 6PM, and self-directed study again from 7PM to 10PM.

Wang Lan had seven job interviews after finishing her course, most of these with small start-up firms. She received three job offers, including one from her former employer, the health services platform. In the end, she decided to return to her former company, but this time as a programmer.

But Wang Lan’s newfound skills did not give her a major career boost, in contrast to Li Rui’s experiences. In fact, Wang’s salary as a programmer was just 1,000 yuan higher than her previous salary in customer service at the same company.

Wang Lan’s experience may also illustrate a wider dilemma facing China’s tech industry and its young professionals.

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Haidian District in Beijing. China's "Silicon Valley" at night. Image by Mitch Altman available at Flickr.com under CC license

In an analysis of the industry last year, science and technology author Chuan Ye observed that there were two basic development paths open to internet companies given that the basic technologies of the internet are open source. They can either engage in technology research and development, or they can build new apps on the basis of existing technology. For the most part, said Chuan, China’s information technology industry, including some of the largest internet companies rising over the past decade, has focused on technology application products.

Along with the advancement of basic open source technologies and development tools, the entry barriers for Chinese programmers have steadily been lowered, in line with the increasing demand for programmers. And as capital has flooded into the competitive internet sector, the need for speed has become the industry consensus – meaning that the priority is the quick turnaround of new products. This has created a dilemma in which rapid industry expansion has driven a flood of people into the industry who lack high-end skills even as the market demands ever greater speed from companies in creating new products. Under these circumstances, the energies of these programmers are concentrated on new application development rather than more innovative high-end research.

Among programmers, a clear class segregation has emerged. On one side, there are the high-end programmers, like Li Rui, with a generally higher level of education who are steadily advancing technologies. On the other, there are hordes of “coding workers,” or daima mingong, who are trapped in the pipeline with limited prospects for growth and advancement. “The IT industry is like a pyramid,” says Li Rui. “The threshold is really low.”

“As technology develops, the meaning of technological elites and technical personnel is also changing,” explains Chen Weida, the IT professional working in AI. Chen, 35, moved into the AI field in 2011 after working for several multinational companies. The transition, he says, required a great deal of personal initiative. “I had no teachers [helping me into the field]. I read academic papers and figured things out for myself,” he says.

The gap between the bottom and the top of the pyramid may help to explain the different attitudes that come up in discussions of the 996 work schedule. Many professionals note that resistance to the 996 culture is stronger among lower-level programmers, while higher-level programmers, those earning higher salaries for more skilled work, tend to be more accepting of the grueling schedules, which they see as opportunities for study and advancement. The latter group of course also tends to have a greater sense of achievement than lower-level programmers.

This industry segregation is partly the product of “Chinese characteristics” in the tech industry – namely, the tendency to move talented technical professionals into higher paying management positions enabled by rapid development. “Chinese companies have so much growth potential, so a lot of technically skilled people end up transferring to management as the business develops, and there is less appetite for technology,” says Chen. In his experience, foreign companies, which are more established, provide more of a growth path for technical personnel so that they can focus on perfecting technologies. This is one thing Chen says he admires about multinational tech companies. “They have a real love of technology, and a real drive for it, so when they talk about a demand they work out the best technological response to it, and focus on every detail. That’s a really great state of mind.”

That state of mind is a distant though for the vast majority of China’s grassroots programmers.

As China’s economy lagged in 2018, the flow of capital into the internet industry also slowed. According to data from IT Orange, total investment in technology start-ups declined in 2018 decreased for the first time since 2013. New investment also fell 23 percent from the previous years.

The internet industry, which had long seemed to have unlimited development potential, began laying off employees. NetEase Selection, the e-commerce brand of the internet giant NetEase, laid off 30-40 percent of its staff in 2018. The online community Zhihu laid off more than one-fifth of its sales team. The online consumer platform Meituan shed more than 1,000 employees people, and JD.com announced that it would cut 10 percent of its management positions.

The era of guaranteed payoffs in the internet industry is over in China. This has led many programmers working in the 996 culture to question whether their hard work will be repaid in terms of personal development. The fairy tale of “no pain, no gain” is beginning to crack.

“In the beginning, I thought it was glamorous [working this way], but now I just think it’s cruel,” says Wang Lan, who will soon turn 30. “Programmers fade professionally after the age of 35, and a new generation of programmers rises behind them. We can’t compete with them in terms of energy, so we can only rely on our experience.” Wang worries that within five years, she will become replaceable. “How will I support myself when I’m older?”

“In the beginning, I thought it was glamorous [working this way], but now I just think it’s cruel.” – Wang Lan, computer programmer.

 

In recent months, several egregious cases of mistreatment of internet industry workers have drawn greater attention to chronic problems.

On November 23, 2019, a game developer working for Netease made an anonymous post to WeChat public and Zhihu in which he said that he had been terminated by the company after being diagnosed with heart disease in January 2019. He had worked for Netease for five years without incident, he said, but after his diagnosis was maliciously downgraded in performance reviews, denied work, threatened with termination and eventually ejected from the company by security guards. NetEase remained silent for two days after the post, but facing public pressure eventually released a statement admitting to mistreatment of the employee, with whom it later reached a settlement.

A few days after the Netease incident, another news story broke in China in which a former employee for the tech giant Huawei claimed he had been detained for 251 days in a dispute with the company. The Huawei employee in question, Li Hongyuan, had been told in 2018 that his contract with Huawei would not be renewed. At the time, Li accepted this decision, even though he suspected it was related to his internal reporting in 2016 of exaggerated performance data within his Huawei department. After negotiating termination compensation with Huawei in March 2018, Li signed a severance agreement. Curiously, his severance money was transferred to his account two months later from the private account of a secretary at Huawei.

Sometime after the transfer was completed, Huawei reported Li Hongyuan to police, alleging he was trying to extort money the company.  Li was detained by police in December 2018, and arrested in January 2019. The charges against him were changed three times during the course of his detention, which lasted for 251 days before prosecutors dropped the case owing to “unclear criminal facts and insufficient evidence.” In the end, Li was offered compensation of 107,000 yuan from the government for his wrongful jailing.

The Li Hongyuan case sparked widespread anger toward Huawei among Chinese netizens, who referred to Li’s predicament on social platforms as the "251 Incident." The case was linked to the rights and well-being of those working in the text industry, and to issues such as the “996” work schedule.

But the most internet users could do was voice their anger. The grind of the “996” schedule continues for most. When the sun rises tomorrow, programmers will crawl from their beds in Xisanqi, squeeze into public transportation, and head off to their jobs at internet companies, working late into the night.

"I don’t have time for anxiety," says Wang Lan.

The names of Li Rui and Chen Weida have been changed at their request.

 

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Working 996

18. February 2020
Author
Wu Jing

Wu Jing is a journalist for Hong Kong's Initium, a leading professional online news magazine.