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Next-generation China: Taking a look ahead into the future of a giant market

The end of China’s ”savage growth” as seen from the 996 problem – the fading Chinese Dream

June 11, 2019

China’s charismatic managers ”going up in flames”

There is widespread debate about the ”996 problem” in China today. ”996” refers to working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week, or a 12-hour work day with only one day, Sunday, as day off every week. The term itself first appeared in 2016, but the problem suddenly gained wide attention in March this year after an independent website was set up by young programmers to protest and bring the issue to light.

Jack Ma, executive chairman of Alibaba Group, and Liu Qiangdong, founder of JD.com, China’s second largest e-commerce company, became subject to unprecedented backlash from the younger generation after speaking about the need to work very hard while young in reference to their own success experiences, in comments that were seen to defend the 996 practice.

These developments point to the big change in how China’s younger generation views the meaning of success. Jack Ma and other first-generation IT entrepreneurs in China have in fact built their current position as pioneers in an uncharted territory by starting almost from scratch to build China’s IT industry in the late 1990’s. Naturally, there were peculiar difficulties and competitions during that time, but it is also for a fact that the huge void in the market enabled a free-for-all scramble for success by mainly relying on resourcefulness and effort.

It is a different story for the younger generation of today; they cannot win using the same tactics anymore. They do not want to ”die fighting” needlessly anymore. This is how the generations born in the 80’s and the 90’s feel. Looking at how the 996 problem played out, we cannot but feel that the era of China’s ”savage growth” has ended. China seems to be treading the same path as Japan has—gradually evolving into a ”low-desire society” under a stably growing economy. I would like to talk about that in this article.

”996” is a labor law violation

The term ”996” first came to use in October 2016, when a major Chinese IT company instituted the ”996 work schedule.” Although according to news reports at the time, the company explained that the schedule was a means to encourage the proper mental attitude among employees during the peak work seasons from October to November and was not compulsory and institutional, the move was met with strong opposition by the employees and was criticized in the media.

Working 996 means working 12 hours a day, six days a week, or a total of 72 hours a week. Chinese labor laws actually prohibit more than 8 hours of work per day and more than an average of 44 hours per week. And they also stipulate that overtime must generally not exceed 1 hour per day; and in special circumstances that require overtime, the health of the worker must be properly ensured, with overtime not exceeding 3 hours per day. Total monthly overtime, however, must not exceed 36 hours.

Since the legal daily working hours is 8 hours, a 12-hour workday means 4 hours overtime, which is by itself already illegal. And, although the labor laws also stipulate the payment of 50% higher pay for overtime work, it is common for IT engineers to not receive extra wages by using the pretext of flexible work shift and performance-linked compensation. Although these problems have existed before, they have not received major attention from the public the way that the 996 problem had.

Programmers protest against 996

The uproar started in March this year when programmers from China launched a project page called “996.ICU” on Github, a worldwide software development platform based in San Francisco, U.S. ICU is short for Intensive Care Unit, and the name of the project means that if you continue to tolerate the 996 work schedule, you will risk your own health and might need to stay in an Intensive Care Unit someday. The project publishes names of companies in a corporate blacklist based on information from programmers, as part of activities meant to fight 996.

This is the 996.ICU page launched by programmers. More than 200,000 programmers have signified support and provided information to the project.

The protest page has received widespread support. Some contributors claim that 996 is not even true, because in reality, it is ”807” or ”716.” ”807” means working from 8 a.m. till midnight, 7 days a week, and “716” means working from 7 a.m. till 1 a.m., with only Sunday as day off.

Upon learning of this protest, People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, published a commentary asserting that compulsory overtime should not become the corporate culture in China. This triggered other news outfits to also publish articles criticizing the 996 work schedule, bringing the problem to the fore as a pressing social issue.

People’ Daily commentary published on April 11 asserting that compulsory overtime should not become the corporate culture in China. This led to a chorus of articles about the 996 problem.

Publication of corporate blacklist and whitelist

The front page of 996.ICU explains the purpose of why the page was launched. The Principles and Purposes section clarifies that ”the project is not a political movement; we firmly uphold the labor law and request employers to respect the legitimate rights and interests of their employees; 996.ICU is an initiative initiated by IT practitioners; and we welcome people from other fields and other countries to join the discussion.”

On the same page is the blacklist of 996 companies based on information provided by programmers themselves, as well as a whitelist of 955 companies, both publishing real names of companies. ”955” means working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 5 days a week (2 days off a week), and has become the symbol of commendation for companies that advocate a proper work-life balance.

The blacklist includes China’s major IT companies, such as the Alibaba Group, Baidu (China’s no. 1 search engine), smartphone makers Huawei and Xiaomi, e-commerce company JD.com, Ant Financial (Alibaba Group company running Alipay), and Tencent (provider of WeChat). Notable meanwhile among the whitelisted companies are foreign firms such as Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and SAP.

Jack Ma’s comments ”going up in flames”

The heat of the 996 discussions were further fueled by comments from Jack Ma. On the same day that People’s Daily published its commentary on 996, Jack Ma, speaking in an in-house lecture said, ”Many companies and many people don’t have the opportunity to work 996; so you should be proud of it. If you don’t work 996 when you are young, when can you ever work 996? If you don’t put out more time and energy than others, how can you achieve the success you want?”

Jack Ma’s Weibo page showing his remarks about 996, which provoked widespread public response as shown by the more than 40,000 comments generated

Further, he said, ”The mission of the Alibaba Group is to ”eliminate impossible business from this world,” and we are working to achieve this goal. There’s a price to pay to realize this vision. If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work 12 hours a day. We don’t need people who are satisfied with working 8 hours a day for a famous company with a nice office and cafeteria. If you don’t like your job, even 8 hours would be torment. But if you love your job, you won’t feel that 12 hours is long.” These statements by Jack Ma showed his being in favor of 996.

When these comments came out on the Internet, they elicited heavy backlash and criticism: ”This is completely a manager’s logic,” ”Is he saying that we should think that it’s a blessing to offer your life for your company?” ”That’s evading the issue—working for a company’s vision is completely different from the 996 problem,” ”If you support 996, then you should be willing to pay the proper wages.” The backlash was unprecedented, with some commenting that they had never seen such outrage against Jack Ma.

His defense backfired and further heightened criticism

In response to the uproar, Jack Ma posted the following day, April 12, on his SNS (Weibo) account that ”not all companies should and could enforce 996 on their employees,” to show a certain level of consideration against the criticism. He continued, however, by saying that ”although I do not intend to defend 996, I salute those who put great effort into their work,” and ”we cannot expect to achieve returns without paying the price,” indicating that he continues to support the 996 work culture.

His defense, however, only fueled further backlash, and the barrage of critical comments continued. As of April 20, his post has received more than 40,000 comments, which, as far as can be ascertained, were mostly critical, expressing dismay of his stance on 996.

In response to the worsening situation, on April 14, Jack Ma finally issued a lengthy message saying, ”No one willingly wants to work 996. It is a humanitarian issue, which is unhealthy and should not be continued for a long time. It is also against the law. It is foolish for companies to try to gain profits through 996; it will drive away talents, no matter how high the wages you pay them.” He was forced to backtrack on his position and show disapproval for 996.

Even reminiscence of ”8116+8” did not elicit empathy

Liu Qiangdong, founder of e-commerce giant JD.com, also expressed his opinions about 996 at around the same time as Jack Ma did. While sharing a story about the founding of the company, Liu Qiangdong said that ”JD.com does not enforce 996, but JD.com employees must devote themselves fully to their work.” He recalled that during the early days of the company, he did not only work 996, but ”8116+8,” meaning that he worked from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m., 6 days a week, and another 8 hours on Sundays. He said, ”To save on rent, I slept on the floor of the office for four years. I have never slept for more than 2 hours in those four years.” Although he added, ”Of course, I can’t do that anymore today,” his words indicated his strong feelings of nostalgia for this kind of work ethic.

Likewise, Lei Jun, Chairman and CEO of Xiaomi, one of China’s leading manufacturer of smartphones, on April 4, expressed his opinion about 996 in a lecture in Tsinghua University in Beijing, saying, ”Going forward, we plan to hire excellent talents who do not need to be supervised by the company, i.e., people who are willing to work overtime until 12 midnight everyday, and who have a strong sense of responsibility and personal drive.”

These comments were also widely published in the media, eliciting a backlash of criticisms: ”It’s absurd to compare the generation when China’s successful founders built their companies with the working conditions of today’s younger generation,” ”Putting your effort into your work is different from virtually forcing workers to work overtime,” and ”It’s wrong to perceive people who work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. as carefree and irresponsible in their work.”

The end of the ”Chinese Dream”

Jack Ma was born in 1964, while Lei Jun and Liu Qiangdong were born in 1969 and 1973, respectively. They were at the forefront of the era when China came to fully embrace the Internet age from the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s. With the Internet world unfolding before their eyes, they devoted themselves to their work with a compelling motivation to plunge into the enormous possibilities lying before them. You can read what their generation looked like from the many biographies written today in China about these pioneers. This generation of trailblazers, who have become the embodiment of the ”Chinese Dream,” are among the world’s richest and have become central figures in China’s IT industry.

However, looking at how the 996 problem has played out, it seems that this generation of China’s prominent self-made men is slowly becoming a thing of the past.

In an interview with the Chinese media, Atty. Huang Wei, an expert on labor issues and a researcher at the Chinese E-Commerce Research Center, explained, ”At the background of the 996 problem is the overall decline in profitability of Internet companies, forcing them to scrimp on labor costs for programmers, while at the same time expecting per capita productivity to increase.”

Indeed, almost all members of the 15-to-60 year-old working population now have access to smartphones and have fully embraced e-commerce as a common means of purchasing goods, wherein there is no more room for rapid growth in e-commerce business. Behind the strong opposition expressed by the younger generation against the 996 issue is an unmistakable loss in enthusiasm among the younger generation because prospects of returns from investing their utmost effort in a company are not as bright as before.

Is the ”low-desire society” dawning in China as well?

Behind this 996 problem, we can see some indications of China becoming a ”low-desire society,” which is similar to what is happening in Japan. On April 6, an event was held in Beijing to launch the Chinese edition of ”Unequal Society—What is the Problem?” (by Tachibanaki Toshiaki, Iwanami Shinsho [in Japanese]). One of the panelists, Li Chunling, a researcher from the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that ”Incidents of death by overwork and other similar problems in the past have led the younger generation in Japan to lose their sense of expectation towards companies and work itself. This is one of Japan’s biggest failures; it has contributed to a ”low-desire society,” where young people have no motivation to get married and have children.”

Li Chunling continued with the following comment about the 996 problem: ”How do you expect workers to have bright expectation towards their companies and their work under an overtime work culture where people work on a 996 schedule only to get sick and end up in the ICU?” These comments bring to light a sense of crisis in having China’s young generation tread the path to a ”low-desire society” like Japan.

Not seeking after ”success that comes from above”

Alibaba’s Jack Ma is the typical leader who has a clear resolve, who inspires others around him, and leads them towards achieving a common goal. He also powerfully embodies the ideals he advocates, and is deified as a hero who accomplishes great things. At the root of his belief that ”996 is a blessing” is, as might be expected, his own experience of success—something that is becoming an unrealistic goal for today’s young generation. The mindset for achieving success in a generation where success in business was guaranteed by sheer determination and hard work is no longer applicable in today’s age of maturity where there is an overflow of funds, information, and talents in all areas of life.

The younger generations born in the 80’s and 90’s are not seeking after ”success that comes from above.” They are in search of an environment where they can freely choose their own job and earn money by working the way they want. Although they are not sure whether they would succeed or not, they do not want to be under compulsion to succeed. That is why they strongly disagree with having those who oppose 996 being regarded as wanting to spend a carefree life. For them, opposing 996 is their natural and legal right, and they feel that they do not deserve to be called lazy just because they oppose 996. Therefore, the sense of values that considers those who willingly work until 12 midnight as exceptional workers is completely unacceptable for them.

The end of China’s ”savage growth”

What today’s youth learned from the 996 problem is the fact that the highly successful, first-generation IT entrepreneurs had passionately and freely pursued their business under a ”savage” social environment where even legal frameworks could be disregarded, and that they still have not broken away from this kind of mindset to this day. It must be a startling realization for them to find out that the IT pioneers still have this kind of mindset. Today, as the ”savage” social environment characterized by ”anything goes,” ”the early bird catches the worm,” and ”survival of the fittest” is slowly fading away, society is having second thoughts on whether China’s IT companies would be able to sustain growth as they used to, and whether it is even necessary to do so.

I think the reactions of the younger generation somehow indicate the direction where Chinese society is heading. The generation where the entire society is feverishly racing towards success has ended, paving the way for an ordinary society where rules are followed. Rather than the young people all aiming to make it big, they would instead be pursuing their own unique lives that fit their own personalities and lifestyles. And this is not a bad thing for China and for the rest of the world. I think this is what the 996 problem has revealed.

Nobuhiko Tanaka

Partner, Brighton Human Capital Consulting Co, Ltd. Beijing (BHCC)
Part-time Lecturer, Graduate School of Asian and International Business Strategy, Asia University (MBA)
Former Visiting Researcher at Recruit Works Institute

Mr. Tanaka currently resides in Shanghai, China. He graduated from Waseda University School of Political Science and Economics. After working for a newspaper company, in the early 1990’s he moved to China to work as a contributor and consultant on human resource management. His involvements include projects with RGF Human Resource Consulting, and business of a major casual wear chain in China. He also works as a consultant and adviser for major corporations both in Shanghai and Tokyo.

Recently he published ”Sukkiri Chugoku Ron: Suji No Nippon, Ryo no Chugoko” (Nikkei BP). (”Fresh insights on China: Japan’s emphasis on reason, China’s emphasis on quantity”) [in Japanese]

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