Debate over the so-called '996' work culture in China—the expectation in some industries, especially internet companies, that work should last from 9 am to 9 pm six days a week—has heated up in China recently (again).
In March during a joint meeting of China's NPC (National People's Congress) and CPPCC (Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference), Dong Mingzhu, a delegate to the National People's Congress and chairwoman of Gree Electric, suggested public litigation against the 996 culture. She said that “it is absolutely unfeasible for companies to put the physical and mental health of their employees at risk". She believes prosecution is needed to protect the legal rights and interests of workers.
Her comment in a government venue sparked more debate about the topic on Chinese social media, especially when rumours of significant impending layoffs at Alibaba and Tencent also became a hot topic last weekend. Why work so hard and so long only to face layoffs, online commenters questioned. Yet the threat of layoffs increases the pressure on employees to 'prove' their value by putting in extra hours.
Questioning of the 996 culture became popular online several years ago after the founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, made a bold statement defending the expectation and Richard Liu, founder of JD.com, called employees who sought work-life balance “slackers” not welcome in his company.
Last January, Pinduoduo took criticism for poorly handling the death of a staffer, only to face boycott calls a week later after the reported suicide of another employee. Starting from anonymous whistleblowing on Maimai, Pinduoduo’s crises quickly sparked a nationwide debate about the so-called 996 culture. Later, the Chinese Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MOHRSS) ruled 996 illegal.
Soon after, Chinese tech giants adopted new policies against overwork. Kuaishou announced its formal cancellation of weekend overtime policy last July. Later, ByteDance abolished the "small and big week" policy, which had mandated a six-day work week every other week. In November last year, ByteDance reportedly asked employees to start following a “1075” schedule (working from 10 am to 7 pm, five days per week).
Before Chinese New Year, media reported Tencent's WeChat Business Group started a "1065" working system, working from 10 am and leaving at 6 pm for five days per week. But Tencent did not comment on the news.
Chinese media have commented that Tencent was reacting to the complaints and resignation of a new employee, and quoted employees who said that even if they apply for overwork, they must leave before 10 pm.
In early February this year another young man from Bilibili died, once again stoking the debate on Chinese social media. Bilibili denied claims that the man was overworked. The rumours and claims swiftly died down, and Bilibili hired 1,000 new content moderators and promised to more closely monitor staff health.
As one of the favourite brands of Gen-Z, Bilibili was not a company notorious for overwork. On the contrary, according to an anonymous writer on Zhihu who left Bilibili, it is a tech company full of freestyle, warm working culture with a decent welfare system.
Also in late February, a young employee from ByteDance died after collapsing after a workout at a company gym. His death triggered another round of debate online about the high working pressure.
996 has even made it into advertising. Last year, a Dove chocolate campaign designed by BBDO Shanghai touted the chocolate as a way to melt away the ‘996 stress’. The campaign targeted the short-video platforms where young people turn to relax.
Campaign talked to numerous staff members from agencies and internet companies off the record, and all of them denied that they are required to work overtime. However, the competitive working environment in China encourages staff to work longer hours to handle their workload and manage requests from clients. This is common in many other markets, of course; see this report about the PR industry in Hong Kong, which said overtime is “normal" and is leading to health issues.
Why does overwork still prevail despite regulation and policy changes?
Arnold Ma, founder and CEO of Dao Insights, a news site that covers all kinds of China consumer trends, tells Campaign the problem is deep-rooted inside Chinese culture and society under severe pressure and anxiety, a phenomenon some call ‘involution’ (内卷).
"The burnout culture will not be fixed by simply ordering companies to reduce work hours, as we’ve seen already," says Ma, who also founded Qumin, a digital creative agency in London and Shanghai. "The new reduced working hours regulation is like a painkiller, it may temporarily fix the symptoms, but it won’t fix the cause in the long term. Chinese youths will have less pay, but the high living costs in big cities remain the same."
Chinese young people will endure toxic work culture and long hours, according to Ma, because they can earn more money to relieve pressure in other aspects of life, such as marriage, education, housing, raising children and looking after elderly relatives.
"Amid the constant competition, which begins in the education system, if they don’t work hard and late, their jobs will probably be taken by someone else," Ma says.
Indeed, Chinese independent media Caixin published an article last year claiming that because of the cancellation of its "small and big week" schedule, some staff at ByteDance lost 20% of their monthly salary.
Rule changes that lead to lower income won’t stop the toxic overtime working culture. What does Ma believe would make a difference?
"I don’t think there is a magic bullet fix for this," he says. "The only way we can begin to fix the overwork culture in China is, no surprise, through cultural changes. There are a lot of inefficiencies in Chinese work culture, a lot of times it’s about input over output, it’s more about how much you do, over the quality of what you do."
Most Chinese businesses are very top-down and autocratic, he continues, saying there is a lack of empowerment for people at all levels to build, think and innovate. In addition numbers are always favoured over quality. For example, an inefficient company with over 100 people is generally favoured over a super-efficient business with less than 30 people, he says.
"All of the above contributes to a huge amount of inefficiency and thus, overtime is required to either fix problems or redo work, and to ultimately succeed as businesses," Ma adds. "This needs to be fixed culturally and systemically, not through superficial regulations."