Those Bearing the Brunt of China’s Tech Aspirations

(Bloomberg) -- Technology muscle has been central to the on-again-off-again trade spat between China and the U.S.

While an all-out trade war might be averted for now, one thing is clear: China's not backing down on aspirations to become a tech super power as it tries to chip away at its reliance on advanced U.S. tech. That means mega-government subsidies for companies and research institutions. But what does this push to race ahead mean for the average tech worker in China?

I caught a glimpse of the pressure that tech workers are facing a couple months ago during a week-long visit to Xiaomi, the smartphone maker prepping for what could be the world's largest IPO since 2014. Official interviews were scheduled well past dinnertime (the latest one went well beyond 10 p.m.).

Even then, workers toiled away at their computers even though the lights dimmed hours ago. CEO Lei Jun bragged about his many all-nighters, making a point during our interview to rattle off his long list of meetings and emphasize his packed schedule. Other rank-and-file employees also boasted of long hours, explaining matter-of-factly that that's what it takes to succeed. Indeed, an early group of Xiaomi employees are expected to rake in millions.

It's not just Xiaomi: Chinese companies are known for requiring employees to work "996" — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days a week — a far cry from Silicon Valley's work-life balance mantra, replete with sleep pods and free massages. China works an average 46.6 hours a week, compared to 34.5 in America, according to Euromonitor. 

Are China's educated, white-collar workers starting to resemble factory workers during the last decade at Apple suppliers like Foxconn? More than 90% of tech professionals are grappling with anxiety and more than half of them have experienced feelings of loneliness in their daily lives, according to research out last week from Chinese job website Zhaopin. The report showed more than a quarter of those surveyed said they felt unhealthy, mostly because of "irregular work and often staying up late" or "heavy work pressure with overtime and travel." 

The increased stress has also led to rife employment discrimination among China's leading tech companies: Companies are refusing to hire based on age (read about how 30 is too old in China tech here) and gender, with the prime explanation being that women or older people with families can't work the same long hours as their younger, male peers.

While China's work ethic is often praised — this Financial Times column in January urged Silicon Valley to follow China's hard-working lead — it's impossible to ignore the darker side of tech progress. Witness the phenomenon of karoshi, or death by work in Japan.

Still, with tech hegemony a top national priority, China's white-collar tech workers should brace for an even more furious march. 

And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

Sony’s CEO sets a new tone. Kenichiro Yoshida laid out conservative mid-term targets for the Japanese entertainment and electronics company. One thing is clear, there’s more focus on content and services. Exhibit 1: Sony is buying EMI catalog for about $2 billion.

Tech in the crosshairs: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is urging the Justice Department to review the power that large technology firms such as Google have over the American economy.

The latest Chinese fad attracting billions: Glorified vending machines dispensing fruit, yogurt and steamed buns.

Another day, another chip flaw. Intel disclosed another way that computers can be attacked related to security flaws announced earlier this year. The biggest maker of computer processors is urging businesses and users to implement fixes as soon as possible. 

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