In China Tech, ‘996’ Means Work, Work and More Work

(Bloomberg) -- Few issues have proven more divisive of late in Chinese technology circles than the pervasive culture of extreme overtime, known for years by the punchy moniker “996.” The three digits describe a punishing schedule of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. That’s 72 hours a week, often with no extra pay. Overwork has long been prevalent in China, often viewed as a hallmark of dedication and long-term success. But it’s become more of a sore point as China’s once fast-growing tech sector cools along with the broader economy, leading to unprecedented layoffs and fewer venture capital deals for startups.

1. Why is it a hot-button topic now?

Because China’s richest man -- Jack Ma, co-founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba Group -- backed the regime as the gold standard. “To be able to work 996 is a huge bliss,” he wrote in an online post in April, arguing that great achievement came only with great sacrifice. Richard Liu, chief executive of Alibaba rival JD.com Inc., weighed in as well, writing that, while he wouldn’t force a 996 schedule on staff, people who slacked off weren’t “brothers.” That added fuel to a long-running debate online and off about the consequences of going all-out in service of one’s employer.

In China Tech, ‘996’ Means Work, Work and More Work

2. How widespread is it?

The phenomenon isn’t unique to China, of course. In Silicon Valley the likes of Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. offered free food in part to encourage employees to work longer hours, especially around product-launch deadlines. Nor is the 996 ethos limited to the tech world. But anecdotal evidence — and endorsements from internet billionaires like Ma — suggest it’s particularly acute in that field. A project by programmers in China protesting 996 conditions on the online code-sharing community Github in March quickly became the site’s most popular topic, with more than 240,000 stars, or “likes.” Employees at Microsoft Corp., which owns Github, wrote an open letter supporting their Chinese colleagues.

In China Tech, ‘996’ Means Work, Work and More Work

3. What’s the big deal?

A few publicized cases of tech workers dying suddenly in recent years has added to the public furor, even if direct connections to overwork weren’t established. But aside from any health effects, tech companies that encourage — or mandate — a 996 culture without proper compensation are violating China’s labor laws, which generally cap the workweek at an average of 44 hours. In addition, a corporate culture built on the precept “Enthusiasm -- or Else” can make it a lot tougher to tell who’s faking. Crazy hours often encourage procrastination, as employees stretch or put off their work to last longer, to give the appearance of dedication.

4. Is this the beginning of the end?

Probably not. Advocates of 996 point to the Chinese tech sector’s phenomenal growth of the past decade, a rising tide that benefits employees as well. Digital serfs may see working at these successful firms as a privilege, and putting in extra hours for nothing as evidence of loyalty and devotion. Many hope to follow in the footsteps of internet billionaires such as Alibaba’s Ma and Pony Ma, co-founder of gaming and social media giant Tencent Holdings Co.
In fact, “997” -- seven days a week -- has come to be expected in some quarters. Some Chinese even joke about a new work ethic “007,” or midnight (00:00) to midnight, seven days a week.

The Reference Shelf:

  • Bloomberg Opinion’s Adam Minter asks why China is letting digital serfs rise up.
  • Technode examines China’s changing tech workforce.
  • No sleep, no sex, no life: a South China Morning Post profile of tech workers.
  • The Economist looks at why China’s tech sector is in the doldrums.
  • Over 30? Too old for a tech job in China.
  • A partner at Sequoia Capital thinks Silicon Valley would be wise to follow China’s lead.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.