China’s toxic work culture under fire again in Beijing

17 March 2021

One of the few highlights for workers at the annual legislative gathering in Beijing this month was the renewed criticism of China’s "996" work culture by Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) delegate Li Guohua.

Li called for working hours to be more effectively regulated and singled out the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) for its failure to protect workers’ rights and interests. Li’s criticisms were widely reported and attracted huge support on social media, with netizens sharing their own experiences of overwork.

Popularised by Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma, “996” refers to the expectation that employees work from 9 am to 9 pm, six days per week, and often longer. Long working hours are common in many industrial and service sectors in China, but the bosses of large technology companies have actively endorsed working overtime without additional remuneration, citing it as the reason for their success.

Following the outcry after the death of a Pinduoduo employee in December last year and a video which exposed workplace bullying, Shanghai’s Municipal Labour Bureau launched an investigation into Pinduoduo’s working conditions. This is far from the first time harsh working conditions and abusive work practices have been exposed at China’s most profitable tech companies. 

“A lot of people want a change in workstyle,” said Suji Yan, an advocate of the anti-996 campaign. But Yan is doubtful that the crisis management approach taken by local governments will bring lasting change. “If you really try to crush Pinduoduo culture, they’re just going to move to Hangzhou, right?” said Yan. 

“We’re probably going to see, in the next five years, more and more tragedy,” said Yan. He believes that solutions may lie in examples like the efforts of the Beijing delivery driver who tried to organise his fellow workers through informal mutual networks. The industry needs “more people like that who speak out the truth.”

Many others agree. This is evidenced by the successful crowdfunding campaign after the driver, Chen Guojiang, was detained in Beijing on 25 February. His family instantly raised 120,000 yuan for legal expenses from supporters online.

Yan also believes that white-collar workers face a dearth of options for workplaces that pay a decent wage, and they have “nowhere to go.” Although white-collar workers have complained about 996 - sometimes in videos that go viral - many of them still see the practice as a trade-off worth making for career advancement and economic incentives. 

China has a 40-hour work week with clear provisions on overtime limits and pay rates. These laws should be enforced by the courts and local governments. Instead, local authorities tend to protect large companies, who are their biggest taxpayers. In Shenzhen’s Nanshan district, for example, tech giant Tencent has earned the nickname “Nanshan’s sure winner” (南山必胜客) after it won almost all the cases it brought before the Nanshan local courts.

China’s pursuit of technological self-sufficiency may also throw a shadow over efforts to improve working conditions. A recent document issued jointly by the Central Committee and State Council “allows the exploration of special work hour management systems that meet the development needs of new technologies.” 

“Overtime is not in line with China’s determination to increase people’s quality of life,” said Lü Guoquan, head of the ACFTU’s research department. However, as CPPCC delegate Li Guohua noted, the union has so far done little to address the problem of overwork. 

Even more damaging is that the ACFTU has largely stood by while wages of China’s lowest-paid workers stagnate. For these workers, overtime is the only way they can earn a living wage. The fundamental issue for both blue-collar and white-collar workers is decent pay for decent work. For real change to occur, the policy debate needs to shift away from specific grievances like 996 to a broader understanding of labour relations in China.

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