Protocol | China

China’s era of Big Tech Overwork has ended

Tech companies fear public outcry as much as they do regulatory crackdowns.

Empty office

Chinese tech workers are fed up. Companies fear political and publish backlashes.

Photo: Susan Fisher Plotner/Getty Images

Two years after Chinese tech workers started a decentralized online protest against grueling overtime work culture, and one year after the plight of delivery workers came under the national spotlight, a chorus of Chinese tech giants have finally made high-profile moves to end the grueling work schedules that many believe have fueled the country's spectacular tech boom — and that many others have criticized as exploitative and cruel.

Over the past two months, at least four Chinese tech giants have announced plans to cancel mandatory overtime; some of the changes are companywide, and others are specific to business units. ByteDance, Kuaishou and Meituan's group-buying platform announced the end of a policy called "Big/Small Week," where a six-day workweek is followed by a more moderate schedule. In early June, a game studio owned by Tencent rolled out a policy that mandated employees punch out at 6 p.m. every Wednesday and take the weekends off.

The recent headline-grabbing announcements have marked the beginning of an era where Chinese tech workers can enjoy weekends off and protections under labor laws. These changes came at a time when Beijing is actively rewriting laws and regulations aimed at curbing powerful tech giants. And they came to fruition after voices in both China and around the globe had challenged the uneven distribution of power and wealth, calling for labor protection in the digital economy.

"Both the [Chinese] government and the [tech] companies would face enormous public pressure if overworked tech workers start another high-profile protest or if poor labor conditions cause another public uproar in the press," Suji Yan, a participant of the anti-996 campaign in 2019 and founder of Shanghai-based blockchain startup Mask Network, told Protocol. "Tech companies now fear public outcry as much as they fear new authoritarian rules." (Suji is a pseudonym.)

The outcry begins

Frustration over working hours has been percolating in China for several years. In March 2019, it bubbled over when a group of Chinese software developers began a campaign against the infamous 996 work culture — a 12-hour, six-day work schedule — and called for improved working conditions. Anonymous activists launched a project hosted on GitHub called 996.ICU, meaning "Work by '996,' sick in ICU."

The 996.ICU GitHub repository lists companies that have adopted 996 work hours and details Chinese labor laws that involuntary or unpaid overtime policies violate, including a provision that caps the total number of monthly overtime hours at 36. It shares a manual instructing workers how to conduct labor arbitration and litigation on their own and instructions on how to petition the government. It also contains an "Anti-996 License," which requires any company that uses software or codes under the license to comply with Chinese labor laws as well as core international labor standards.

The 996.ICU campaign quickly garnered national and international attention, even prompting state news agency Xinhua to run an editorial that called for the overtime system to end. But the campaign didn't sink the notorious practice. Some tech companies told the media they'd take it seriously at the time, while others continued to overwork employees. Alibaba founder Jack Ma shrugged off criticism of 996, calling the ability to work that long for his company "a blessing." A number of Chinese web browsers blocked access to 996.ICU. The anti-996 initiative died down after authorities and companies questioned the initiative's core organizers and participants, Suji Yan, who was one of the drafters of the Anti-996 License, told Protocol.

Also in 2019, Chen Guojiang, a food-delivery worker and activist known better as "Mengzhu," started organizing delivery workers via WeChat. He eventually reached 14,000 workers through 16 WeChat groups, where fellow laborers shared logistics assistance, safety advice and even offered legal consultations. That year, Mengzhu was briefly detained after calling for a work stoppage to protest reduced delivery rates. In February, Mengzhu was detained again; he was charged with "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" and has not been released.

Shifts in regulations and public opinion

What happened in 2019 paved the way for public debates about the rights of tech laborers in China. In September 2020, a long-form investigative article in Renwu magazine on the nearly impossible work conditions of food couriers titled "Delivery Workers, Trapped in the System" went viral, prompting nationwide discussions about the plight of food delivery workers, who were in particularly close touch with consumers and policymakers during the pandemic. The article was "the tipping point" for the general public to become aware and start to question the terrible ways digital laborers are treated, said Julie Yujie Chen, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who researches digital labor and the platform economy in China. Media coverage of how algorithms and workplace software surveil and control tech workers and gig workers has since become abundant in China's media ecosystem.

In 2021, the tech industry's notorious overtime culture again came under public scrutiny after two employees at Pinduoduo, a Nasdaq-listed ecommerce behemoth, died unexpectedly within a week of each other in late December and early January. One employee collapsed while walking home from work past midnight and died within hours. Shortly after the two high-profile deaths, another Pinduoduo worker, Wang Taixu (an alias), was fired for taking a photo of an ambulance that came to the company's Shanghai headquarters to pick up a worker and uploading it anonymously to Maimai, a LinkedIn-like platform where Chinese tech workers trade gossip and vent. A 15-minute video on Weibo featuring Wang's self-account of his firing and recounting of Pinduoduo's various rules that exploited employees received 2 million likes in January.

2021 marked the beginning of the end to Chinese authorities' "tolerant and cautious" approach to the tech industry. Regulators this year have punished tech behemoths that crush smaller competitors, intrude on consumer privacy and compromise national security with on-site investigations, hefty fines and serious threats to break them up and thwart their IPOs. Just on Monday, seven Chinese central government agencies issued a set of policy guidelines that urge tech companies and local governments to ensure labor rights for gig workers, including paying them at or above the local minimum wage and allowing them to access social security benefits. In this new regulatory environment, it's in the company's best interest to preemptively adopt moderate work policies to avoid massive political backlash.

"[Tech companies] are breaking rules and deploying what they call regulatory arbitrage," Chen said, adding that senior executives at tech companies in charge of government relations are particularly attuned to policy signals. "[It] will surprise me if the recent cancellation or adjustment to the overwork culture has nothing to do with the recent political measures."

Public opinion toward tech giants has also shifted. If the Chinese public found tech behemoths and their iconic founders admirable in 2019, harsh criticism of their accumulation of enormous wealth and power is commonplace in 2021, thanks in part to media exposés and a wave of antitrust crackdowns.

Last year, an arcane academic term "involution" (内卷) swept across the Chinese internet. The term refers to a perverse form of competition, in which companies and individuals turn inward in a scramble for resources, rather than expanding outward with genuine innovation. The tech industry, with its dominant overtime culture, epitomizes involution. Tech workers have responded by slacking off at work, or "touching fish" (摸鱼), as a countermeasure. In 2021, a movement not exclusive to the tech industry called "lie-flat-ism" (躺平主义), meaning dropping out of the rat race, gained so much traction that it attracted censorship across social media.

These days, tech companies have to worry about regulators and the public at the same time. "They could be caught in the crosshairs of the government," Yan said. "Or they could face pressure if people like Wang Taixu strike again. They didn't need to worry about either two years ago."

One big caveat

Company and government policies favorable to tech workers and gig workers are an important step toward protecting their rights, but how they will be implemented or enforced is a different issue. Many tech workers view the announcements of new, moderate work hours with skepticism. Before ByteDance announced it would abolish its overtime schedule, it had sent out a survey to workers. The results showed that a third of the surveyed employees were in favor of canceling the policy, but another third would like to continue working six days a week every other week. Many workers are against the cancelation of the Big/Small Week regime because their pay doubles on the weekends.

"Canceling the Big/Small Week would basically mean a salary cut," a ByteDance employee told Protocol, adding that she is expecting a 10% to 15% hit to her bottom line. And if the companies don't adjust KPIs and workloads based on a regular work schedule, tech workers worry they will just have to work overtime at home without being paid for it.

Activists like Yan are pleased to see their work from two years ago helping bring heavy overtime policies to a formal end in 2021. But they are not entirely satisfied with the result. "We designed the 'Anti-996 License' with the hopes that workers could challenge companies through legal means," Yan said. But the end result, Yan said, seems more like a concession made by tech companies to preclude backlashes than a considered effort to improve welfare. "It's a classic Chinese-style solution."

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