Chinese tech's nickname obsession

Forcing employees to choose an alias breaks down intra-office hierarchies. It may also make it harder to organize.

Chinese tech's nickname obsession

Pictured: Alibaba's headquarters in Hangzhou.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Getty Images

Imagine you work at a high-powered big tech firm in China. You're eager to get promoted, and you take your work seriously. But there's a catch: The colleague sitting to your left calls himself "Yogurt," the manager you report to wants to be referred to as "Genghis Khan," and everyone knows the founder of your company as "Feng Qingyang," a fictional master swordsman from one of China's best kung fu novels.

This is not an edgy startup; it's Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce titan.

At Alibaba, every employee has a nickname for internal communications. These aliases, called huaming (花名) in Chinese, are unique identifiers that employees at a growing number of major tech companies in China give themselves when they start. It's not just whimsical — it's required. Alibaba promotes nicknames as a tool to break down innate hierarchies and create a more relaxed corporate culture.

Other Chinese tech companies are making similar attempts to flatten office hierarchies. In September 2020, NetEase, a company specializing in gaming and music streaming, decided that every employee needed an alias. Tencent, mimicking workplaces in the West, has always required employees to choose an English first name for internal communications. Tencent's founder and CEO, Ma Huateng, is widely known as Pony Ma. In these companies' internal systems, aliases display alongside employees' real names, so it's an individual choice of which name to use.

Ecommerce heavyweight Pinduoduo has taken the practice to a new extreme: Employees are not even allowed to know each other's real names in work communications, according to Chinese tech news outlet LatePost.

There's a darker interpretation of the corporate motives at play. Observers suspect the aliases are designed to prevent employees from developing real-life friendships and from organizing together. "This is no different from the Foxconn factories in the past," Pun Ngai, a sociology professor at the University of Hong Kong, told LatePost. "At Foxconn, everyone is given an employee ID when they are hired. The day shift workers don't talk to the night shift workers. If anything goes wrong, the employee has to face it alone."

The practice started with Alibaba in 2003 when the company launched Taobao, now a massive ecommerce platform. The complicated evolution of its experience is instructive. An early employee suggested everyone adopt aliases to interact with customers and increase online engagement; founder Jack Ma agreed and chose Feng Qingyang (风清扬), a fictional master swordsman, for himself. All early employees, many of them now in the Alibaba C-suite, also adopted fictional character names.

It's since become a company tradition. According to a book by Zhao Xianchao, a former journalist and now himself an Alibaba employee, about 160,000 aliases had been chosen within the company by 2018.

Because every name has to be unique, literary references soon ran out, and the names have become weirder and more random. There are food names (Soymilk, Yogurt, Fried Eggs), historical figures (Kublai, Li Bai, Du Fu), silly titles (Your Majesty, Old Dog) and many expressions that aren't even names (people have named themselves One Day, Two Days, … all the way through Ten Days).

Last year, Alibaba finally started letting new employees use aliases discarded by ex-employees. Finding the right nickname had become a chore for new hires, who complained they spent hours coming up with an original one.

Alibaba justified all the trouble with its desire to eliminate hierarchy. It's considered rude in China to refer to one's teacher, older relatives or manager by a first name. Most employees default to phrases that combine a person's last name and their title, something like "Boss Ma." When these names are repeated enough, it enforces a rigid system and discourages difficult conversations.

Alibaba has taken other steps to level the playing field. Its internal communications system, DingTalk, used to show everyone's "job levels" via an internal quantified ranking system. It stopped displaying these levels in August.

The aliases give Alibaba a good corporate culture story to tell the public, but its effect is limited.

"When it comes to [Jack Ma], we usually call him Teacher Ma. Few would call him Feng Qingyang," Zhang, an Alibaba employee, told Protocol. Teacher Ma is another common nickname for Jack Ma, partly because of his earlier career as an English teacher. (Zhang asked Protocol to withhold her first name to avoid upsetting her employer.)

When Zhang joined Alibaba, she put a lot of thought into finding an alias. She eventually picked an expression that signals personal growth and sounded similar to a historical figure's name.

But most people still call Zhang by her real name. "My real name is quite catchy, so people just refer to me by that, and it feels more intimate too," she said. "But I use my aliases in all work documents and email sign-offs."

"To be honest," Zhang added, "the Chinese tradition of seniority and the reverence that comes with it will always exist. It won't be changed by one or two corporate culture innovations."


Why foundation models in AI need to be released responsibly

Foundation models like GPT-3 and DALL-E are changing AI forever. We urgently need to develop community norms that guarantee research access and help guide the future of AI responsibly.

Releasing new foundation models doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition.

Illustration: sorbetto/DigitalVision Vectors

Percy Liang is director of the Center for Research on Foundation Models, a faculty affiliate at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI and an associate professor of Computer Science at Stanford University.

Humans are not very good at forecasting the future, especially when it comes to technology.

Keep Reading Show less
Percy Liang
Percy Liang is Director of the Center for Research on Foundation Models, a Faculty Affiliate at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI, and an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University.

Every day, millions of us press the “order” button on our favorite coffee store's mobile application: Our chosen brew will be on the counter when we arrive. It’s a personalized, seamless experience that we have all come to expect. What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes. The mobile application is sourcing data from a database that stores information about each customer and what their favorite coffee drinks are. It is also leveraging event-streaming data in real time to ensure the ingredients for your personal coffee are in supply at your local store.

Applications like this power our daily lives, and if they can’t access massive amounts of data stored in a database as well as stream data “in motion” instantaneously, you — and millions of customers — won’t have these in-the-moment experiences.

Keep Reading Show less
Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Jennifer Goforth Gregory has worked in the B2B technology industry for over 20 years. As a freelance writer she writes for top technology brands, including IBM, HPE, Adobe, AT&T, Verizon, Epson, Oracle, Intel and Square. She specializes in a wide range of technology, such as AI, IoT, cloud, cybersecurity, and CX. Jennifer also wrote a bestselling book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer to help other writers launch a high earning freelance business.

The West’s drought could bring about a data center reckoning

When it comes to water use, data centers are the tech industry’s secret water hogs — and they could soon come under increased scrutiny.

Lake Mead, North America's largest artificial reservoir, has dropped to about 1,052 feet above sea level, the lowest it's been since being filled in 1937.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The West is parched, and getting more so by the day. Lake Mead — the country’s largest reservoir — is nearing “dead pool” levels, meaning it may soon be too low to flow downstream. The entirety of the Four Corners plus California is mired in megadrought.

Amid this desiccation, hundreds of the country’s data centers use vast amounts of water to hum along. Dozens cluster around major metro centers, including those with mandatory or voluntary water restrictions in place to curtail residential and agricultural use.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (


Indeed is hiring 4,000 workers despite industry layoffs

Indeed’s new CPO, Priscilla Koranteng, spoke to Protocol about her first 100 days in the role and the changing nature of HR.

"[Y]ou are serving the people. And everything that's happening around us in the world is … impacting their professional lives."

Image: Protocol

Priscilla Koranteng's plans are ambitious. Koranteng, who was appointed chief people officer of Indeed in June, has already enhanced the company’s abortion travel policies and reinforced its goal to hire 4,000 people in 2022.

She’s joined the HR tech company in a time when many other tech companies are enacting layoffs and cutbacks, but said she sees this precarious time as an opportunity for growth companies to really get ahead. Koranteng, who comes from an HR and diversity VP role at Kellogg, is working on embedding her hybrid set of expertise in her new role at Indeed.

Keep Reading Show less
Amber Burton

Amber Burton (@amberbburton) is a reporter at Protocol. Previously, she covered personal finance and diversity in business at The Wall Street Journal. She earned an M.S. in Strategic Communications from Columbia University and B.A. in English and Journalism from Wake Forest University. She lives in North Carolina.


New Jersey could become an ocean energy hub

A first-in-the-nation bill would support wave and tidal energy as a way to meet the Garden State's climate goals.

Technological challenges mean wave and tidal power remain generally more expensive than their other renewable counterparts. But government support could help spur more innovation that brings down cost.

Photo: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash

Move over, solar and wind. There’s a new kid on the renewable energy block: waves and tides.

Harnessing the ocean’s power is still in its early stages, but the industry is poised for a big legislative boost, with the potential for real investment down the line.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (

Latest Stories