China

China’s Big Tech has ended '996.' Why does the overtime culture persist?

A Tencent worker’s open criticism shows why this work schedule is hard to change in Chinese tech.

The Tencent logo displayed outside a conference in Tianjin, China, in May.

Excessive overtime is one of the plights Chinese workers are grappling with across sectors.

Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Workers were skeptical when Chinese Big Tech called off its notorious and prevalent overtime policy: “996,” a 12-hour, six-day work schedule. They were right to be: A recent incident at gaming and social media giant Tencent proves that a deep-rooted overtime culture is hard to change, new policy or not.

Defiant Tencent worker Zhang Yifei, who openly challenged the company’s overtime culture, reignited wide discussion of the touchy topic this week. What triggered Zhang's criticism, according to his own account, was his team’s positive attitude toward overtime. His team, which falls under WeCom — a business communication and office collaboration tool similar to Slack — announced its in-house Breakthrough Awards. The judges’ comments to one winner highly praised them for logging “over 20 hours of intense work nonstop,” to help meet the deadline for launching a marketing page.

Repulsed, Zhang fired off icy questions to managers in a 600-member chat group when he read the news. “Did this worker really have to work for over 20 hours uninterrupted to make this new version satisfactory to you?” Zhang asked, according to a screenshot of the internal chat history. The comments pained him, he said, and triggered his trauma — a high-school classmate who worked as a programmer had died unexpectedly in December. “I will keep the screenshot of the company’s commendations,” Zhang wrote. “[Excessive overtime] is slowly killing people, and you are treating it as an honor to incentivize workers … every decision-maker is complicit in this mechanism.” In the end, Zhang said he’d submit his notice Wednesday.

Zhang’s solemn criticism prompted three WeCom managers to reach out to him Tuesday night, promising that they’d amend things. Ironically — or perhaps fittingly — the managers’ conversations with Zhang took place well after work hours; text chat and call histories show that they were talking around midnight.

The incident immediately sparked discussion about overtime internally and, later, externally. Many colleagues in private messages showed solidarity with Zhang and echoed his grievances and anger about overtime. “I admire your courage,” one colleague confided to Zhang. “I’m also furious but dare not say anything. The economy is bad, and I’m stressed. I just can’t risk my job.”

By Wednesday, Zhang’s challenge to Tencent managers became one of the most popular posts on Maimai, the social media platform where Chinese tech workers gather to trade information and gossip. On Weibo, in light of the Tencent incident, one topic, “Why does overtime culture persist,” had garnered 190 million reads by Thursday. Tencent did not immediately respond to Protocol’s request for comment.

Excessive overtime is one of the plights Chinese workers are grappling with across sectors. The issue is particularly visible in the highly competitive tech sector because several white-collar tech workers’ high-profile protests in the past three years have garnered international attention. And the campaigns have sparked a societywide reckoning about overtime.

Chinese labor law caps the total number of overtime hours an individual can work per month at 36. Big Tech’s notorious “996” — 72 hours of work per week — clearly violates those laws, but the government for a long time maintained a hands-off attitude while many Chinese tech giants embraced and promoted overtime culture to power high-speed growth.

Last year, that slowly started changing. Most of China's big tech companies, including Tencent, terminated their respective overtime regimes after public opinion turned against tech following several high-profile overwork deaths and a flurry of regulatory crackdowns. In August, China's Supreme People's Court and its Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security came out and made it clear that “996" is a serious violation of Chinese labor laws, citing 10 court decisions related to workplace overtime disputes, including two cases involving tech companies.

So why are tech workers still involuntarily logging overtime? Tech workers Protocol talked to in recent months all said that as long as their workload doesn’t change accordingly, even if they have weekends off, they need to log overtime on weekdays.

Zhang’s own account and his colleagues’ experiences at Tencent offer a rare window into the psyche of Chinese tech employees and the stresses they grapple with. Even though Tencent encourages workers to log off on time, workers don’t trust that management really means it.

“Managers will always pursue high productivity, and workers, under the pressure of KPIs, have to guess the management’s intentions and pursue high outputs by overworking themselves,” Zhang explained. The result is a textbook definition of “involution,” a once-arcane academic term that’s swept across China since 2020: a perverse form of competition in which companies and individuals turn inward in a scramble for resources rather than expanding outward with genuine innovation.

Because of this prevalent fear of logging off early, Zhang said, citing internal data, 76% of his colleagues on the WeCom team are online after 6 p.m. — some of whom work into midnight — and 30% to 40% of his colleagues are still working on the weekends.

The situation is exacerbated by a sense of job insecurity. Five years ago, the booming Chinese tech industry offered bountiful job opportunities and growth potential. But in a slowing economy and a harsher regulatory environment, massive layoffs started roiling the tech sector in late 2021. Even though many exhausted colleagues told Zhang they feel strongly that “intense overwork has hindered their motivation and creativity,” the grimmer employment prospects mean they dare not leave work on time, and they fear even more about losing their jobs for speaking up about their conundrum. This is why many tech workers, in and outside of Tencent, are lauding Zhang as a hero.

Shortly after Zhang’s condemnation of the overtime culture gained traction, the head of WeCom, Huang Tieming, responded in an internal forum that he felt “sorry” that his team overworked employees, and he reckoned that uninterrupted, high-intensity work is “not sustainable,” according to The Beijing News. On Thursday, hours after Beijing News reported Huang’s response on Weibo, more than 600,000 web users “liked” and shared the post.

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