Working for one of China’s big Internet companies is a trade off between generous wages and brutal working hours. And an increasing number of young Chinese are no longer willing to put up with it.
The tragic death of a 25-year-old from Wuhan is the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Chinese man, one of around 2,400 content moderators at the video-sharing platform Bilibili, died in hospital at the beginning of February after suffering a brain hemorrhage. He is said to have worked six night shifts in a row during the previous week, each from nine in the evening to nine in the morning. Even though “Bilibili” has denied all allegations, the incident has sparked a fierce debate on Chinese social media about the brutal working conditions of the tech industry.
“We basically trade our lives for money. It was normal for me to work twelve to thirteen hours a day,” wrote one user on the online platform Weibo. In just a few days, millions of other posts followed.
The news struck a nerve because it is by no means an isolated case. In recent years, there have been repeated deaths in the tech industry. Most recently, a 22-year-old worker from the e-commerce platform Pinduoduo collapsed without warning on her way home after a night shift.
For many years, the industry was downright proud of its extraordinary commitment to performance. “996” is the buzzword that sums up the common working hours in startups and Internet empires: from nine in the morning to nine at night, six days a week. Alibaba founder Jack Ma popularized the mantra. Whoever wants to work for his company must be prepared for twelve-hour shifts: “Why else would you want to work for Alibaba?”
It is often not just about efficiency. A basic rule for young employees is that they should not leave the office before their manager, irrespective of whether they have completed their work. The fact that Chinese labor law allows a maximum of eight-hour shifts with a maximum of three hours of overtime per day is of little concern to employers. Independent trade unions do not exist in China, and the media is not free to report on labor law scandals.
In the meantime, tolerance for such working conditions among millennials has significantly decreased. A young Chinese woman who joined the e-commerce group JD.com in Beijing described her well-paid job as a tale of woe. She rarely left the office before ten o’clock in the evening during the week, and on Saturdays she also had to write work reports for her manager, with Sundays used to recuperate in bed. Even though it was clear to her that, as a woman in her 30s, she would have a hard time on the Chinese job market, she quit the job.
And this young Chinese woman is not an isolated case. For “Generation Z,” the national civil service examination, known as “guokao” in Chinese, has become increasingly popular. Last December alone, more than 2.1 million university graduates applied for just 31,200 jobs. The government jobs may tend to be dull and modestly paid, but they offer what is currently back in high demand: security and stability.
Most tech employees realize that generous pay is not a lifetime insurance policy. After their mid-40s, many employees are laid off by the dozen despite their technical competence and replaced with cheaper, more “resilient” workers in their early 20s.
China’s shrinking labor market is driving reform
But there are several signs that industry working conditions are gradually improving. This is because public resistance is growing. Last year, four Chinese programmers in their early 20s collaborated on the “Workers’ Lives Matter” project, which basically consisted of a simple Excel spreadsheet that was publicly accessible like a Google document. China’s tech workers could voluntarily and anonymously enter their working hours. 14 hours per day was not uncommon. The project was so popular that after just a few days it was censored, and access to the online spreadsheet blocked.
The central government in Beijing fears civil rights movements, but it cannot ignore the problem entirely. The party leadership ultimately wants to walk a tightrope. On the one hand, it expects its youth to continue to throw themselves into the social hamster wheel with a thirst for action and sacrifice. Yet it also knows that brutal working conditions like those in Manchester capitalism will ultimately only fuel the country’s demographic crisis. If young people do not enjoy a minimum level of work-life balance, the already low birth rate will only further decline.
And some urban millennials are already refusing to perform. Many of them indulge in the “tang ping” concept, which literally means “lying flat.” Instead of pursuing a career and having children, they prefer to retreat into the private sphere and lead a minimalist lifestyle. Nevertheless, the “tang ping” movement is primarily the privilege of the upper middle class. Most Chinese simply cannot afford to forgo long working hours.