China’s Burned Out Tech Workers are Fighting Back Against Long Hours

1The draining 996 work schedule—named for the expectation that employees work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week—has persisted in Chinese companies for years despite ongoing public outcry. Even Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma once called it a “huge blessing.”

In early October this year, it seemed the tide might have been turning. After hopeful signs of increased government scrutiny in August, four aspiring tech workers initiated a social media project designed to expose the problem with the nation’s working culture. A publicly editable database of company practices, it soon went viral, revealing working conditions at many companies in the tech sector and helping bring 996 to the center of the public’s attention. It managed to garner 1 million views within its first week.

But the project—first dubbed Worker Lives Matter and then Working Time—was gone almost as quickly as it appeared. The database and the GitHub repository page have been deleted, and online discussions about the work have been censored by Chinese social networking platforms.  The short life of Working Time highlights how difficult it is to make progress against overtime practices that, while technically illegal in China, are still thriving.

But some suspect it won’t be the last anonymous project to take on 996. “I believe there will be more and more attempts and initiatives like this,” says programmer Suji Yan, who has worked on another anti-996 project. With better approaches to avoiding censorship, he says, they could bring even more attention to the problem.

Tracking hours

Working Time started with a spreadsheet shared on Tencent Docs, China’s version of Google Docs. Shortly after it was posted, it was populated with entries attributed to companies such as Alibaba, the Chinese-language internet search provider Baidu, and e-commerce company JD.com.  “9 a.m., 10:30 p.m.–11:00 p.m., six days a week, managers usually go home after midnight,” read one entry linked with tech giant Huawei. “10 a.m., 9 p.m. (off-work time 9 p.m., but our group stays until 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m. because of involution,” noted another entry (“involution” is Chinese internet slang for irrational competition).

Within three days, more than 1,000 entries had been added. A few days later, it became the top trending topic on China’s Quora-like online forum Zhihu.  As the spreadsheet grew and got more public attention, one organizer, with the user name 秃头才能变强 (“Only Being Bald Can Make You Strong”), came out on Zhihu to share the story behind the burgeoning project. “Four of us are fresh college and master’s degree graduates who were born between 1996 and 2001,” the organizer said.genesis3-1-1

Initially, the spreadsheet was just for information sharing, to help job hunters like themselves, they said. But as it got popular, the organizers decided to push from information gathering to activism. “It is not simply about sharing anymore, as we bear some social responsibility,”

The spreadsheet filled a gap in China, where there is a lack of company rating sites such as Glassdoor and limited ways for people to learn about benefits, office culture, and salary information. Some job seekers depend on word of mouth, while others reach out to workers randomly on the professional networking app Maimai or piece together information from job listings.  “I have heard about 996, but I was not aware it is that common.

Now I see the tables made by others, I feel quite shocked,” Lane Sun, a university student from Nanjing, said when the project was still public. Against 996 According to China’s labor laws, a typical work schedule is eight hours a day, with a maximum of 44 hours a week. Extra hours beyond that require overtime pay, and monthly overtime totals are capped at 36 hours.125x125-1-1-1

But for a long time, China’s tech companies and startups have skirted overtime caps and become notorious for endorsing, glamorizing, and in some cases mandating long hours in the name of hard work and competitive advantage.  In a joint survey by China’s online job site Boss Zhipin and the microblogging platform Weibo in 2019, only 10.6% of workers surveyed said they rarely worked overtime, while 24.7% worked overtime every day.

 Long work hours can benefit workers, Jack Ma explained in 2019. “Since you are here, instead of making yourself miserable, you should do 996,” Ma said in a speech at an internal Alibaba meeting that was later shared online. “Your 10-year working experience will be the same as others’ 20 years.” But the tech community had already started to fight back. Earlier that year, a user created the domain 996.icu.

A repository of the same name was launched on GitHub a few days later. The name means that “by following the 996 work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU (intensive care unit),” explains the GitHub page, which includes regulations on working hours under China’s labor law and a list of more than 200 companies that practice 996.  Within three days, the repository got over 100,000 stars, or bookmarks, becoming the top trending project on GitHub at that time. It was blocked not long after by Chinese browsers including QQ and 360, ultimately disappearing entirely from the Chinese internet (it is still available through VPNs).

The 996.icu project was quickly followed by the Anti-996 License. Devised by Yan and Katt Gu, who has a legal background, the software license allows developers to restrict the use of their code to those entities that comply with labor laws. In total, the Anti-996 License has been adopted by more than 2,000 projects, Yan says. Today, 996 is facing increasing public scrutiny from both Chinese authorities and the general public.

After a former employee at the agriculture-focused tech firm Pinduoduo died in December 2020, allegedly because of overwork, China’s state-run press agency Xinhua called out overtime culture and advocated for shorter hours.This company delivers packages faster than Amazon, but workers pay the priceSouth Korean e-commerce giant Coupang uses AI to promise almost-instant delivery. But speed comes with troubling labor issues—including worker deaths.

And on August 26, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the Supreme People’s Court jointly published guidelines and examples of court cases on overtime, sending reminders to companies and individuals to be aware of labor laws. But even though authorities and state media seem to be taking a tougher stand, it is unclear when or if the rules that make 996 illegal will be fully enforced. Some companies are making changes.quintex-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-2-1-1-1-1-2-2-1-1-1

Anthony Cai, a current employee of Baidu, says working six days a week is quite rare in big companies nowadays. This year, several tech companies including and ByteDance, the developer of TikTok, canceled “big/small weeks,” an emerging term in China that refers to working a six-day schedule every other week. “Working on Saturday is not that popular anymore,” Cai says. “However, staying late at the office is still very common, which is not usually counted as overtime hours.” 

 Source: https://www.technologyreview.com

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U.S.-Listed Chinese Stocks Have Lost Another $150 Billion In Market Value This Week As Beijing Targets ‘Excessive’ Wealth

Shares of Chinese tech giants trading in the United States struggled to pare losses Friday amid intensifying concerns over China’s efforts to impose sweeping new regulations on its publicly traded companies over the next several years, yielding market value losses of more than $150 billion for the 10 largest U.S.-listed Chinese stocks this week alone.

Key Facts

As of 2:45 p.m. EDT, shares of e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba, the largest Chinese company listed in the U.S., were among the hardest hit, down more than 15% on the New York Stock Exchange over the past week to $157, deflating its market capitalization to $424 billion.

Fellow online retailers JD.com and Pinduoduo, posted similarly staggering losses, wiping out about $20 billion and $10 billion in market value this week, respectively, despite ticking up about 2% Friday.

“China remains a huge source of global concern,” market analyst Adam Crisafulli of Vital Knowledge Media wrote in a Friday email, pointing to the nation’s strengthening regulatory campaign against corporations and actions that last month included demanding online education companies end their for-profit business models.

This week, shares of Chinese stocks have crashed steadily since Tuesday, when President Xi Jinping vowed to redistribute wealth in the nation by regulating “excessively high incomes”—spurring a sell-off that crushed shares of European luxury companies that do big business in China, like LVMH and Gucci-parent Kering.

U.S.-listed shares of online-gaming company NetEase, electric carmaker NIO and Internet firm Baidu plunged 11%, 10% and 10%, respectively, this week.

All told, the 10 largest Chinese companies trading in the United States have lost about $153 billion in market value since last week—more than 15% of their combined market value of roughly $940 billion.

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Key Background

In a matter of weeks, China has introduced harsh regulations targeting wide swaths of its economy and showing investors how risky investing in its market can be, Tom Essaye, author of the Sevens Report, wrote in a recent note. “Yes, there’s a huge market and lots of growth potential, but obviously there are regulatory risks that seem to be growing larger with every passing month,” said Essaye.

Last week, officials released a sweeping five-year blueprint for the crackdown, covering virtually every sector in its market. Then on Wednesday, China’s market regulators published a long list of draft rules targeting tech companies, barring them from using data to influence consumer choices and “traffic hijacking activities,” among other things.

Crucial Quote

“This is all a stark reminder that the current regulatory crackdown from Beijing is not going to let up,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a Thursday note, forecasting U.S. tech stocks, which are outperforming the broader market Friday, should benefit from the tech-focused crackdown in China over the next year. “The fear with more regulation in China around the corner is a major worry that is hard for investors to digest, and it will ultimately cause more of a rotation from the China tech sector to U.S. tech.”

Surprising Fact

The Nasdaq Golden Dragon China index, which tracks Chinese businesses trading in the United States, is down 9% this week and has crashed 51% from a February all-time high.

Further Reading

U.S., European Investment Banks May Have Lost Some $12 Billion As Chinese Education Firms Crashed (Forbes)

China’s Internet Tycoons Suffer $13.6 Billion Wealth Drop As Regulatory Crackdown Triggers Market Sell-Off (Forbes)

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I’m a reporter at Forbes focusing on markets and finance. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I double-majored in business journalism

Source: U.S.-Listed Chinese Stocks Have Lost Another $150 Billion In Market Value This Week As Beijing Targets ‘Excessive’ Wealth

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