That number means 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, and is shorthand for the punishing schedule Chinese workers are expected to maintain. A 72-hour workweek with little time for anything else: No family time. No time to meet friends. No hobbies. Not even time to cook proper meals. Once you account for sleeping and commuting, one might wonder how ambitious tech workers fit in the rest of their lives. Is this the price it takes to get ahead in the booming Chinese economy, or is this a symptom of a hustle culture that has gotten way out of hand?
Nobody can doubt that Jack Ma is successful. As a co-founder of Alibaba, one of the world’s largest e-commerce companies, Ma has an estimated net worth of around $40 billion and often makes lists of the world’s most powerful people. However, his recent comments on the company’s WeChat account about 996 working culture—increasingly prevalent in China—have sparked outrage.
“Many companies and many people don’t have the opportunity to work 996,” Ma said. “If you don’t work 996 when you are young, when can you ever work 996? In this world, everyone wants success, wants a nice life, wants to be respected. Let me ask everyone, if you don’t put out more time and energy than others, how can you achieve the success you want?”
Ma isn’t the only notable businessperson advocating for brutally long hours. An email reportedly from JD.com, another Chinese e-commerce company, noted that underperforming employees are those who don’t keep “fighting” to do more work “regardless of performance, position, tenure, personal well-being issues or family reasons.” Youzan, a Hong Kong–listed e-commerce giant, reportedly demanded that employees follow the 996 routine at its end of year gala event. Bai Ya, the company’s CEO, then defended these comments on the grounds that it would expose more people to the company’s culture and help people truly decide whether they want to work there.
A website recently went live at 996.ICU (the site has been down in recent days due to a technical issue), believed to have been created by protesting Chinese tech workers. The website is hosted on GitHub and was created by an anonymous user who joined the site on March 25. The name 996.ICU refers to the phrase “work by 996, sick in Intensive Care Unit,” which succinctly describes how the 72-hour-per-week working culture touted by Chinese tech giants is not a recipe for sustainable success, but for burnout and serious health problems.
The website highlights that Chinese labor laws prohibit more than eight hours of work per day and 44 hours per week in a standard contract, and that it’s illegal to not offer overtime compensation to workers who clock more hours than the legal maximum. The website also claims that although it’s a recent phenomenon that notable companies have made public statements about the existence of 996 culture, 996 has long been practiced in many Chinese companies.
There is further information stored in files of the GitHub repository. More than 500 users have added information to a list of companies that are practicing 996 working hours, along with when it was believed to have begun and links to evidence of these practices. The list currently contains 110 companies and features globally known names such as Huawei, Alibaba, Baidu, and Youzan. Evidence ranges from screenshots of “voluntary struggle” agreements from Huawei to posts from workers on Kanzhun, the Chinese equivalent to Glassdoor.
Controversy has been amplified by reports that the Chinese technology companies under scrutiny are using their web browsers to block the protest website. According to Abacus, the popular instant messaging program WeChat refuses to open links to the website. Browsers such as Tencent’s QQ, Qihoo’s 360, and the native browser of Xiaomi smartphones restrict user access to the site. QQ displays a pop-up message telling users that the protest page is a “malicious site.” The 360 browser blocks the site and displays a message that it “contains illegal information.”
This could suggest that Chinese tech companies are beginning to take the law into their own hands. These companies are not only publicly declaring that their culture involves working hours that Chinese law deems illegal; they’re also deciding to censor websites they consider harmful to their reputation.
How long has 996 been going on?
In the initial tech startup boom of the early 2000s, many companies embraced a culture of working around the clock to claim first-mover advantage on their competitors. This period gave birth to Chinese startups that are now some of the most valuable in the world, such as Tencent and Alibaba. Given these companies’ astounding growth, many others have since adapted a relentless work culture in the hopes that they can replicate that success.
The BBC profiled Li Zhepeng, a 25-year old who moved to Shanghai with the hopes of jump-starting his career. As a young man from mainland China living in one of the world’s top cities, he expected to experience the nightlife and culture that draws talented professionals to locations like London, New York, and Paris. The reality was starkly different: Li had to commute 90 minutes each way to the outer suburbs, where office space is cheaper, to work 12-hour days, including Sundays, posting descriptions of items for sale on an e-commerce website. He took home ¥3,500 a month, equivalent to $560.
Individual motivation to work 996 is varied. Some people are in desperate need of the money. Some know that getting ahead in their career means dedicating themselves to their job at the expense of their outside lives. And some have no choice but to comply with the culture of the company they work for, lest they lose their jobs.
On the surface, working 996 is about companies capitalizing on as many hours as possible to make progress. It utilizes sheer brute force to beat the competition and capture a market. However, knowledge work like computer programming is unlike mechanical work: It is not a series of repetitive tasks that anyone can do as long as they can stay awake and crank the handle.
Like many other creative pursuits, like mathematics, writing, or designing, a human’s output on a given task depends on many different factors, such as the quality of the working environment, a worker’s exposure to stress, and the ability to rest well and frequently. Sometimes programmers can butt their heads for hours against a problem they cannot solve, only for the solution to come to them the next morning after a good night’s sleep.
Working endlessly on a punishing schedule can make people less effective than if they worked fewer hours in a calmer manner. Tired employees can do sloppy work and introduce bugs that cause downtime and even more effort to fix. Some of the greatest minds in history — those who have produced defining works for humanity — have vouched for shorter workdays to be at their creative peak. While it’s true that Darwin, Poincaré, and Thomas Mann are geniuses with superior intellectual abilities, they confined their creative output to daily blocks of three to four hours and filled the rest of their day with other activities.
The greatest waste of 996 culture is that it’s symbolic overwork that is detrimental to employees’ mental and physical well-being. It does not guarantee that those employees are producing better work than their peers who work saner schedules. It deprives people of their free time and makes families and relationships suffer—for no extra pay and no extra output. It is akin to cultural imprisonment, where workers are either pretending to look busy until it is acceptable to leave the office or literally working themselves to death.
Overwork culture is not new, and it is not a primarily Chinese problem. Japan has long suffered from this issue. Cultural phenomena such as being unable to leave work until one’s boss leaves and regularly clocking more than 80 hours of overtime a month have been reported for decades. In fact, this extreme overwork has caused death in seemingly otherwise healthy individuals. It even has a name: karōshi, which translates to “overwork death.” The first case is attributed to a 29-year-old male in 1969, with the term becoming more widely known in 1978, when multiple individuals died from overwork-related strokes or heart attacks.
The Japanese bubble economy of the 1980s, which brought frantic economic activity, elevated karōshi to national attention with reports of several notable business executives suddenly dying without any previous signs of illness. Given the current Chinese technology boom, it’s no wonder that working 996 can result in a trip to the ICU.
Some young Chinese workers, however, are refusing to conform to the harmful cultural norm. Instead of suffering in silence, they are beginning to speak up or show their disagreement by finding work elsewhere. Li Zhepeng, the e-commerce worker mentioned earlier, decided to switch to a different job and be up-front about his working conditions. He spoke candidly with his manager to set a more manageable workload and to ensure that he could occasionally leave earlier. She agreed. His colleagues noted that he was their idol for having the bravery to speak up, according to the BBC.
A 955 future
The 996.ICU GitHub repository also links to another list of companies: those that are reported to work a saner nine-to-five, five-days-a-week schedule, known as 955. A majority of the companies listed are of Western origin, such as eBay, Oracle, Intel, and Apple. With the anti-996 movement creating cultural pressure for nonconforming companies to change their ways, and with younger workers casting their vote with their feet, we can only hope those who are employed in 996 workplaces will find the support to challenge the companies that are setting the agenda.
Although Western technology firms are by no means perfect, numerous pro-worker cultural movements have gained a significant voice in Western countries. Instead of sitting around until our bosses leave, we are beginning to celebrate bosses who leave loudly. At the time of writing, Working Nomads lists more than 10,000 highly skilled jobs that can be done remotely and flexibly from a desk anywhere in the world. Technology companies are beginning to realize that a fridge full of Diet Coke and chocolate is less important than being able to work flexible hours. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, is a number one Amazon bestseller.
Work should support and enable lives, rather than claim them. Conditions in Chinese technology companies, as they have in other countries, will eventually change, because the current practices are simply unsustainable. In August 2018, two Chinese technology founders died under circumstances believed to be related to high-pressure working environments. But regardless of the bad press, has 996 culture spooked Silicon Valley?
Many see 996 culture as a threat to Western economies, but we shouldn’t cave in to these practices. Instead, we should focus on strategy and workforce efficiency. Companies should strive to create the conditions that allow their employees and products to succeed without being shackled to their desks. We should clear out meaningless meetings. We should allow for deep, focused work that moves the needle. We should give employees the flexibility they need to be their most productive.
We should work hard, but most importantly, we should go home. That’s how we win the marathon.