Despite of the recent slowdown, China’s economy boom was largely benefited from the rise of Chinese tech giants. They, however, already shivering through a capital winter, may be entering a new winter of discontent, as Chinese developers recently protest long working hours.
Last month on GitHub, the Microsoft-owned forum where tech developers share software codes, a post from an anonymous Chinese user garnered attention beyond the site’s typical user base. Called 996.ICU, the post was a protest against the extremely long working hours developers in China’s tech sector endure—slogging away from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week.
“If you work 996, you’ll be in the ICU sick,” the post explains. The GitHub post details how 996 culture violates China’s Labor Law, which mandate a work week of 44 hours with possible overtime capped at 36 hours a month. The author signs off with the tag-line, “Developers’ lives matter.”
“The reason why the ‘996 protests’ arose now is because China’s Internet industry, which had been continuously growing at very high speed for the past decade, is feeling the stress of the economy slowing down,” says Li Chen, a social sciences professor at Chinese University Hong Kong.
Tech Sector Growth Slows Down
The weakening economy has spooked investors and rattled China’s tech scene. According to the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology, funding from venture capitalists and private equity firms dropped 87% in the first quarter over the same period last year.
A number of Chinese tech firms are responding to the downward pressure by cutting staff. Ride hailing giant Didi Chuxing reportedly is considering a 15% HR cut while Tencent, the company behind China’s No.1 messaging app WeChat, is targeting a 10% reduction of management staff. This month reports claimed JD.com will lay off 8% of its staff—–approximately 12,000 workers.
‘996’ Gets Controversial Support
Richard Liu, founder of Chinese E-commerce Platform JD.com, came out in favor of the 996 culture after the protest on GitHub had attracted mainstream attention. Liu said that those who refuse to work 996 are “not my brothers.” Jack Ma, founder and chairman of Alibaba, has likewise advocated for long working hours, claiming that those are capable to work 996 are “a blessing.”
Web browsers operated by tech companies called out by the 996.ICU post for implementing 996 work cultures are also blocking access to the GitHub post, sparking fears that the entire movement is at risk of being censored. At this stage, that seems unlikely, since removing the GitHub post would require direct intervention from Microsoft—something Microsoft employees are currently petitioning the company not to do.
However, there’s no indication yet that the government intends to lean on Microsoft to censor the post. In fact, multiple state-owned media have criticized both 996 culture and its defendants. The People’s Daily, even called the legitimacy of a 996-working culture “clearly questionable” and said it should be reviewed.
Whether that unofficial support manifests itself as government policy remains to be seen. Navigating a road between economic growth and worker’s rights has always been a struggle for the Chinese government and this white-collar protest poses a new and challenging obstacle.—-edited fromEAMON BARRETT, fortune.com
Long Work Hours As a Habit?
The debate over long working hours was reignited after Zhu Ning, founder and chief executive of Hangzhou-based e-commerce firm Youzan, called on all employees to embrace the 996-work culture. His comments, made on WeChat under the pen name of Bai Ya, went viral over the weekend.
“If you feel no pressure working at a company, you should leave for your employer is dying; if you feel no pressure at your department, then you should request a transfer for your department is about to cease existence,” he wrote.
Zhu says the human resources department will inform every new job applicant that working at Youzan involves “huge pressure, where many have already treated long work hours as a habit and can’t really separate work and life”.
“If we coax you into it and you end up finding out that’s not what you want. [it will be a waste of time and cost for both sides],” he added.
In his post, Zhu also expressed admiration for the work culture at Huawei Technologies, recounting a story about its founder Ren Zhengfei, who, according to Zhu, once told an employee who was quitting for family reasons, “Why resign to take care of your family? You can get a divorce”.
The Youzan chief executive said that while he did not expect people to divorce for the sake of their job, he does admire Huawei for hiring people with ‘shared values’.
Youzan is not the only Chinese tech firm to challenge its staff to do better as China’s economy shifts into low gear. “Only when the year grows cold that we see the qualities of the pine and the cypress,” Baidu chief executive Robin Li Yanhong wrote in a letter to employees on the first working day of the year.
Some Chinese entrepreneurs still believe that success depends on long working hours and scrimping on employee benefits, according to Liu Guohong, a director at Shenzhen-based think tank China Development Institute.
“Long working hours and shrinking benefits at some Chinese technology start-ups could be a reflection of the current chilling economic environment,” he said. “It is not necessary for all Chinese companies to learn from Huawei’s highly intense working culture. Huawei is successful but it is not the only mode that has succeeded in the world.”
One factor driving the 996 culture in start-ups is the prospect of a huge payoff from an initial public offering, where “the founder as well as the employees will be financially better off”, said Ouyang Liangyi, an associate professor of Peking University HSBC Business School.
“For some start-ups, 996 might be inevitable as they need to launch products as fast as possible to compete with rivals or they will lose their golden opportunities. But it does not mean all companies should consider 996, especially those mature and well-developed ones,” he says.
For Ding, the Shenzhen tech worker, it may not be that bad after all.
“Though I feel mentally and physically tired all the time, we are paid better than most others in the industry, so we don’t deserve to complain about longer working hours,” he says.
He may have spoken too soon. A joke circulating on Chinese social media refers to a new work ethic – “007”, that is “00.00am to 00.00am”, seven days a week.—-edited from Sarah Dai & Li Tao , South China Morning Post
‘007’ is probably a joke, but 996 can be the reality of many Chinese developers. But will it last? It may totally depend on a collective and ‘democratic’ decision that the takers would have to make for themselves and their families. In this maddening race, the winner takes all.
Edited by Joreal Qian