Students type on Apple Inc. laptop computers during a coding class at the First Code Academy in Hong Kong, China (Photographer: Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg)  

Why China’s Letting Its Digital Serfs Rise Up

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In one week in late April, the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin recorded at least 29 instances of labor unrest in China. They included protests against unpaid wages at a recycling company, a taxi drivers’ strike, two food delivery drivers’ strikes, a protest over unpaid pensions at a mining company, and a sanitation workers’ strike over non-payment of overtime and other wages.

None of these incidents were reported in China’s state-run press. Details emerged only on social media and, if posted on China-based platforms, were deleted soon thereafter. Keen to maintain social stability, the Chinese government has no intention of encouraging working-class anger, whatever the cause.

That begs the question of why the state media has been so much more solicitous of the working conditions of another group of Chinese: high-tech workers. Over the last month, the government has mostly tolerated a festering online protest movement targeted at companies that embrace the Chinese tech industry’s notorious “996” work culture, in which employees are expected to work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days per week.

The difference says something important about Beijing’s attitudes toward Chinese workers. The grievances of the working classes, from steelworkers to China’s army of food delivery drivers, are seen as disrupting larger social priorities and treated as political challenges, if not outright crimes. By contrast, educated, wealthy urbanites are viewed — correctly or not — as sharing the Party’s burdens and goals.

The legality of labor protests in China has been unclear since the early 1980s, when the right to strike was removed from the Chinese constitution. What’s clear is that Chinese officials — keen to boost economic development at almost any cost — have long viewed labor protests as challenges to their authority and to stability. They’ve generally sided with employers to put down any unrest as quickly as possible.

Beginning in the 1990s, when hundreds of millions of rural Chinese began migrating into China’s coastal cities looking for factory work, the government’s leverage increased. The vast majority of those workers didn’t have the correct hukou — or residence permit — to obtain government benefits and legal protections in their new homes. As a result, employers (many of whom were state-owned or at least state-connected) could often freely exploit their workforces, requiring forced overtime, delaying wages and promoting unsafe practices.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of China’s white- and blue-collar workers were diverging. To obtain a job at Alibaba Holdings, Ltd., a company that openly espouses the virtues of 996, a software developer needs a university degree. And obtaining one, in all but the most exceptional cases, requires having a hukou. The government is also particularly concerned with keeping educated, middle-class workers happy, given how clustered they are in economically vital cities. That task has become more difficult as growth has slowed and concerns over issues such as pollution have spread.

All this helps explain why the government has tolerated the 996 protests thus far. For years, white-collar workers have complained about the health toll exacted by insanely long hours at the office; in 2014, the state-run China Youth Daily estimated that 600,000 people per year died from overwork. The online archive of 996 complaints set up by Chinese software developers is named — a joking reference to where some of them fear ending up.

Those complaints have generated millions of sympathetic social media posts that haven’t been censored, and have prompted hundreds of articles in the state-controlled media. Even the People’s Daily, the official voice of the Communist Party, has weighed in on the topic and encouraged tech companies to promote greater work-life balance.

This may partly reflect class solidarity: Chinese officials, too, are educated, middle-class urbanites. More importantly, promoting a healthier work environment for tech workers happens to comport with several of the government’s signature initiatives. For example, authorities are trying to encourage Chinese urbanites to have more children to offset population decline, something they’re unlikely to do if slaving away at the office constantly. The government also wants to promote consumption, which requires both higher wages and more leisure time.

So far, too, the 996 protests haven’t migrated to the streets, and tech workers are blaming private companies rather than state-owned enterprises and local governments for their plight. That’s all to the government’s liking. But Beijing’s soft approach to China’s most prominent labor protest in years poses a risk. If Chinese coders continue to be handled with kid gloves, factory workers whose own protests are often brutally suppressed will have yet another reason to resent their leaders.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and the forthcoming "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.