There seems to be an epidemic sweeping through China. Over the last couple of decades, China has powered its economy to rival America’s dominance. The push by the Communist Party leaders hasn’t come without a cost. The country’s punishing hardcore work ethic has a dark underside to it.
Fortune reported on two heartbreaking deaths of workers in China’s tech sector. One person is believed to have overworked himself to death and the second was a death by suicide. The deaths, people say, were due to the prevailing toxic “996” work culture. The term is similar to America’s current hustle-porn culture and dates back to our Protestant work ethic, which viewed work as a duty that benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Before Covid-19, a popular work ethos was the requirement to wake up early in the morning, hit the gym, slay it at the office until late in the evening, work weekends and crush your competitors.
One of China’s wealthiest people, multibillionaire Jack Ma, epitomized the unrelenting hard-work mindset. He was known for pushing his people, especially in the early days of building Alibaba and his tech empire, to follow a “996” work schedule. Ma believed that working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week was one of the ways to quickly scale his business and take on the major U.S. tech giants. He has since disappeared from the public eye. It’s rumored that the government has registered its displeasure with Ma after he criticized the banking system and believed him to possess too much power.
According to Vice, in addition to societal pressures to conform by working long hours, China has “weak law enforcement.” Labor laws mandate that people shouldn’t work over eight hours a day and overtime should be limited. Despite the official rules, “996” appears to be the rule at many offices. Intense competition—both domestically and with the U.S. and other countries—is a factor as well. China, up until very recently, has been playing catch-up to its more advanced economic rivals. Working long hours and weekends is a way to make up for lost time and get ahead of the competition.
Unlike America, in China, according to Vice, “underperforming employees,” are “subjected to bizarre punishments, of which public humiliation is commonplace.” This includes instances in which workers were photographed holding signs saying they won the “freeloader award” and were told to share them on their social media accounts. A man was forced to “dance around the office clad in black pantyhose” and if an employee refused, they were fired. There are stories of workers ordered to eat and drink “raw bitter gourd, toilet water and even live worms.” A person who took a picture of an ambulance arriving at his office—to attend to an overworked employee who collapsed on the job—was summarily fired for this perceived offense.
A relatively new sociological term “involution” was coined. It means that “technological advancement in a society is no longer reflected in improved living standards among its people,” which may account for China’s brutal work-life and the ugly aspects of America’s hustle culture.
It’s interesting to note that the younger generation of Chinese workers is not necessarily fond of Ma’s work code. As reported by the South China Morning Post, the Gen-Z workers are known to “slack off by refusing to work overtime, delivering medium-quality work, going to the toilet frequently and staying there for a long time, playing with their mobile phones or reading novels at work.”
This is their way of pushing back on the demands of long hours without pay that is commensurate with their efforts. Working at a slower pace is a form of protest. It’s their way of saying, “We don’t think that we’re being treated fairly.” Similar to the complaints of both Millennials and Gen-Z in the U.S., the Chinese Gen-Zers contend that their meager earnings won’t afford them a house or a financially comfortable life. As opposed to prior generations, some of the Chinese youth are not buying into the hustle culture and putting a premium on having a well-rounded lifestyle.