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.