Tech Workers Lie Flat

Tech Workers Lie Flat

Why is China’s internet industry putting an end to the grueling schedules that have fueled so much of its growth?

Workers at the JD.com headquarters in 2016 (Visual China Group/Getty Images)

The term 996 has come to denote a culture of overwork in China’s tech sector. The numbers refer to a work schedule that runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, though they represent less a fixed schedule than an expectation that tech workers will consistently put in grueling hours. Even with a seventy-two-hour workweek, jobs in the country’s fast-growing internet industry are among the most sought after by young professionals. Skilled tech jobs are on average among the highest paid in the country, with university graduates at top firms able to earn salaries of up to 600,000 renminbi (roughly $70,000) out of college, and more than twice this amount with just a few years of experience. But not all tech workers are treated equally. Contract workers, non-technical workers, and workers with niche technical skills, such as front-end web development, earn only a fraction of that income but are still expected to work 996.

Although 996 has been practiced by internet companies for more than a decade, the term itself was only popularized in 2019 by a viral worker-led protest campaign known as the 996.ICU movement. (The idea is that working 996 will put workers in the ICU.) The campaign, which demanded that tech firms obey laws against excessive overtime, took shape as a project on the code-sharing platform GitHub and quickly gained traction on social media. The movement ignited a nationwide discussion about punishing work schedules, but most tech firms continued to practice 996.

In 2021, however, Chinese tech workers finally began to catch a break. Over the past year, Meituan, Tencent, Kuaishou, JD.com, ByteDance, and many other Chinese internet giants, which had alternated between five- and six-day workweeks (known as the “big-small week”), announced that they were bringing back the two-day weekend. Last year, a Tencent-owned gaming studio rolled out a policy that would require employees to clock out by 6 p.m. on Wednesdays, and by 9 p.m. other days of the week. Another Tencent division, which runs WeChat, is piloting a “1065” schedule (10 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days a week) this year. Staying at the office beyond those hours requires submitting a formal request.

Why is China’s booming internet industry putting an end to a practice that has fueled so much of its growth? One reason might be because workers have mobilized to push for humane working conditions. But it is also important to recognize how ending 996 might align with the Chinese government’s broader goals for national development—and how the new regulation might even serve the interests of the industry’s leaders.

 

Worker Pressure and Public Outcry

Just months before the viral 996.ICU campaign, the Chinese economy began to slow down, partly as a result of a trade war between the United States and China. Venture capital dried up in what is now remembered in China as tech’s “capital winter.” Many internet companies started to lay off employees en masse, slash bonuses, and skimp on office perks. After years of industry expansion, the myth of limitless growth was crumbling, and programmers—once regarded as a professional class—began to shed their allegiance to the entrepreneurial elite. A post on social media written by a seasoned programmer in 2020 summed up the new mood: “The real winners [of 996] are the bosses. They pay the same sum of money to buy more hours of labor. The losers, on the other hand, are workers because they have to work many more hours for the same salary.” After the viral campaign, tech workers have remained vocal about the hardships of working in the industry. Many have taken to Maimai, a LinkedIn-like service that allows employees to post anonymously, and Zhihu, a forum website similar to Quora, to vent their frustrations.

Tech workers’ grievances have led to the use of new self-deprecating terms: workers call each other manong (coding peasant) and dagongren, which loosely translates to “worker” but is typically reserved for describing rural migrants in low-paying and low-skill jobs. While working conditions for white-collar and blue-collar workers are considerably different, the use of dagongren—even if only jokingly—points to a collapse of these class identities. Office workers also often call themselves and each other shechu—a combination of the terms huishe (company) and shengchu (livestock). The term was originally used in the 1990s by disgruntled workers in Japan.

This new vocabulary refers not just to long hours but also to working conditions at offices, which tech workers now call hulianwang dachang (big internet factories). Despite their companies being housed in modern skyscrapers or at beautiful campuses, they have started to liken their workplaces to factory floors—and for good reason. In 2020, Renwu magazine released a widely circulated exposé of various tactics that internet companies use to prevent employees from spending too much time in the bathroom. At Kuaishou, a Chinese video-sharing social media platform, office bathrooms are equipped with timers that track how long employees are in the stall. According to workers, ByteDance, Kuaishou’s biggest competitor, blocked Wi-Fi and 4G connections in its bathrooms to discourage employees from dawdling on their phones.

Beyond tracking productivity, companies have also demonstrated an utter lack of concern for employee well-being. According to Renwu, there was a severe shortage of bathrooms at the offices of Pinduoduo, one of China’s fastest growing e-commerce companies. Some floors of Pinduoduo’s headquarters were crammed with more than a thousand employees yet had as few as eight bathroom stalls. Employees regularly lined up for over twenty minutes to use the restroom. If the lines were too long, many would sneak into neighboring office buildings or to public bathrooms in a nearby mall. The company responded by hanging a sign in the bathrooms: “Hope everyone can hurry up.”

The cost of overwork has also been paid in blood. At the end of 2020, a young Pinduoduo employee died after collapsing during her commute home, at 1:30 a.m. Shortly after, another employee committed suicide after returning to his hometown. These deaths—said to be related to harsh working conditions—rekindled the public backlash against the industry’s work culture. Many even compared them to the Foxconn suicides of 2010, when eighteen young workers attempted to take their own lives, leading to fourteen deaths, as a result of excessive working hours and a regimented factory culture. Adding fuel to the fire, Pinduoduo, less than a month after the deaths of its two workers, allegedly fired an employee for “defaming” the company by posting about an unconscious coworker being rushed to the emergency room, presumably owing to overwork. Afterward, the employee recorded another video to publicly share the horrible working conditions inside Pinduoduo: food served by the company was often spoiled, employees worked 300 to 380 hours each month, and days off for national holidays were illegally shortened.

 

Ending 996 for National Development

Amid the public outcry over 996, the Chinese internet sector became the target of an onslaught of legislation. China’s “tech crackdown,” as the period is popularly known, started in 2020, when Beijing took aim at the tech entrepreneur Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba and Ant Group. Days before Ant Group’s planned IPO in Shanghai and Hong Kong (which would have been the biggest in world history), Ma had publicly criticized the country’s financial regulators for stifling innovation, declaring that their rules were antiquated and in need of reform. Shortly after, the Chinese government blocked Ant Group from going public. The New York Times described the pulling of the IPO as a move to let “private companies know where they stand next to the state.” Ma went missing, only to reemerge in Hong Kong several months later.

The action against Ant Group was just the tip of the iceberg of plans to rein in China’s internet giants. In the ensuing months, the government embarked on a sweeping attack on the country’s biggest and most powerful internet companies on issues such as antitrust, data security, and algorithmic control. In some regards, Chinese officials were merely catching up to European standards for internet regulations and trying to preempt the kinds of data-privacy and security scandals that have tarnished American politics. But the crackdown was nevertheless catastrophic for investors, resulting in fines of millions of dollars for companies and wiping out billions in company valuations.

The new regulations also included labor protections. Food-delivery platforms were required to guarantee drivers a minimum income and implement more lenient delivery deadlines. The e-commerce platform JD.com and the ride-hail giant DiDi set up labor unions for their staffs—a peculiar management-led arrangement meant to appease regulators who have criticized these companies for exploiting and mistreating their hourly workers.

China’s top court also delivered a blow to 996, declaring the practice illegal. Many workers saw this as an indication that the government stood on the side of the anti-996 campaign. Skeptics doubted whether condemnation from the state would result in any actual change; 996 had long been considered illegal, and no concrete policies were created to regulate the schedules of office workers.

Given the Chinese Communist Party’s history of crushing attempts at worker organization and disappearing labor activists, it’s safe to assume that the government’s new stance didn’t stem purely from a deep concern for labor rights. Instead, these new protections should be situated as part of President Xi Jinping’s new emphasis on “common prosperity,” a framework he announced in the summer of 2021 following a proclamation of the end of absolute poverty in China. With its focus on tackling the country’s gaping inequality and moving toward an economy where the middle class owns the majority of wealth, common-prosperity rhetoric has been framed benevolently around uplifting working people. The move has even won the admiration of a number of leftists in the West, who sometimes go so far as to interpret these changes as the party’s return to socialism. In an article that Xi wrote in Qiushi, the official theoretical journal of the CCP, he makes clear that common prosperity is not an initiative with the sole goal of uplifting working people. It is intended as an equalizer of opportunities to foster entrepreneurship and ultimately grow the economy. Prosperity, as Xi says, can only be achieved through “ingenuity and effort.” For Xi, growth is the primary goal, and greater equality is just a means of getting there.

Common prosperity should be considered alongside the strategy of dual circulation, which Xi announced the previous year. The idea is that Chinese goods and services should circulate both internally and externally: external circulation keeps the Chinese economy open to trade, while internal circulation, arguably more important, boosts domestic consumption and sheds reliance on export-led development. The latter would require curbing inequality and increasing the incomes of everyday people.

If the goal is to boost domestic consumption, 996 presents a problem.

Because tech workers log nearly double the hours required of a regular full-time job, the industry offers fewer jobs than other sectors but also higher pay. The result is starker inequality, which is more than just a social problem. In Trade Wars Are Class Wars, Matthew C. Klein and Michael Pettis argue that Chinese inequality, characterized by the low share of national income that goes to ordinary households, is the culprit behind the country’s low rate of consumption. An additional dollar given to a poor person will likely be spent immediately, whereas the same dollar given to a rich person is more likely to be saved. In other words, those without work have no money to spend, while those who do work end up saving their money.

Worse still, the typical 996 worker is single, lives away from home, rents a cheap room to sleep in, and spends the bulk of their waking hours at an office where every daily necessity, from food to entertainment, is provided to them. Even with salaries well above the national average, some tech workers have found that there isn’t much opportunity to spend the money they earn.

The 996 schedule also worsens the problem of China’s declining birth rate, a longtime concern of the government. At many internet companies, 996 has created an unspoken “up or out” policy. If a worker hasn’t progressed to a managerial position by the time they have children, they risk getting replaced by someone who is able to keep up with the grind. The problem has become so endemic among tech companies that the typical career path of a programmer has been turned into a joke: at twenty-five, you get hired as a software engineer; at twenty-eight, you are promoted to a senior software engineer; at thirty-two, you are promoted to architect; at thirty-five, you become a delivery driver. Men who can maintain the 996 schedule are often unable to participate in domestic labor, which typically is then left to women, in turn pushing them out of China’s already hypercompetitive job market. In response, many tech workers are opting to forgo parenthood altogether.

Given these developmental concerns, ending 996 makes a whole lot of sense for the state. Older workers won’t have to worry about keeping up with the schedule, which could increase the industry’s age ceiling and expand the job market. More workers could have children without risking their jobs, thereby alleviating the problem of the country’s aging population. And the potential to reduce inequality, however minimally, furthers the goals of common prosperity.

 

Winner-Take-None Competition

In studying rice production in Java, Indonesia, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz found that an increase in the number of farmers on each plot of land resulted in diminishing output for each farmer. While the total output increased, productivity per worker stagnated. To describe this phenomenon, he coined the term “agricultural involution.”

“Involution” found its way to China in 1986, by way of a Princeton-educated scholar, Huang Zongzhi, who studied the agricultural economy in Northern China. But it wasn’t until the late 2010s that the term started to circulate on the internet, alongside a series of images that depicted the toil of university students. The most famous of these showed a student studying while cycling, with his laptop delicately balanced on the handlebars.

The term’s Chinese translation, neijuan (inward roll), conjures a picture of a tightening spiral, which has resonated for young people across the country. Each year, students study strenuously for the gaokao, China’s mandatory higher-education entrance exam, and compete against millions of others for coveted spots in top universities. The harder everyone works, the more you have to study just to keep up.

By 2020, involution had also struck a chord with China’s tech workers, capturing a widespread feeling of meaningless competition. Managers pitted employees against each other for vanishingly few spots higher up the hierarchy, and promoted an ideology of meritocracy: for those who made it to the top, their success justified their hard work; those who didn’t had only themselves to blame. The only answer was to work harder.

More recently, workers have begun choosing to tangping (lie flat). Initially, the term was used as a humorous euphemism for quitting one’s job. Similar to manong and shechu, tangping embodies a defeatist attitude toward long hours and poor working conditions. But in the summer of 2021, tangping zhuyi (tangping-ism) emerged online as a concerted and coordinated call to opt out entirely. The movement was a rejection of China’s ruthless economy, from grinding at a 996 job to the social pressure to buy a house. Instead, tangping zhuyi celebrated giving up: quitting a high-salaried job to work 1065 for a modest wage; moving to a lower-tier city; reducing one’s expectations. As tangping zhuyi spread, the government censored several WeChat groups where it was discussed, out of a fear that the ideology would undermine the state-backed ethos of hard work. Elites condemned the movement as a symptom of laziness.

Although neijuan is commonly used to lament overwork at China’s hypercompetitive internet firms, it has also been used to describe the sector as a whole. For most of the past decade, Chinese internet companies have operated with an assumption that growth is virtually limitless. At first, competition wasn’t as fierce, and working overtime wasn’t as common. But in 2009, Google, Facebook, and Twitter were ousted from China, following the circulation of posts about Tibetan protests on the platforms. Chinese companies had a chance to fill the resulting vacuum and seize the country’s rapidly growing digital market. Baidu replaced Google in search. Tencent snagged Facebook’s market in messaging and social media. Weibo, which didn’t even exist at the time of Twitter’s ban, quickly became the go-to micro-blogging website. In other cases, American companies weren’t banned but simply outcompeted, including eBay and Amazon, which lost out to Alibaba’s Taobao.

The mid-2010s were years of opportunity, or fengkou (wind tunnels). The term came from Xiaomi founder Lei Jun, who in 2015 offered a famous description of Chinese tech: “even a pig could fly if it stood in the wind tunnel.” What he was pointing to was how even a fool could make it big as long as they picked the right opportunity—social gaming, AI, live-streaming, blockchain, community group buying. In the era of fengkou, Chinese start-ups pursued money wherever it flowed, moving into market segments that became crowded with dozens—if not hundreds—of copycats. Copying wasn’t stigmatized; in fact, it was a prerequisite to enter the race. When Groupon first entered the Chinese market, there were literally thousands of competing companies that delivered near-identical services. The sheer density of firms meant that the slightest inefficiency or not having the latest functionality gave competitors the edge. As a result, workers were tasked with constantly replicating, tweaking, iterating, and experimenting. The only way to come out on top was to outwork the competition.

As 996 became ubiquitous among China’s internet companies, markets grew even more saturated, and growth slowed. The problem of excessive competition was also compounded by demographic trends. Until 2012, China had double-digit year-over-year growth in the number of internet users, a huge blessing for consumer internet companies. By the mid-2010s, the annual growth of internet users slowed to 5 or 6 percent. It is expected to continue falling.

With slowing user growth and overcrowded consumer markets, internet companies shifted from value creation to extraction. After spending years competing for users, and subsequently attaining some degree of monopoly status, they shifted to taking rents from users while providing no additional value. After wiping out the competition, the Chinese food-delivery platforms Meituan and Ele.me were able to arbitrarily raise their commissions from vendors, who had no choice but to stay on the platforms due to the lack of alternatives. E-commerce sites have similarly hiked up vendor fees. In the years leading up to the internet crackdown, big-data-enabled price discrimination, which allowed internet companies to take advantage of customer loyalty, also became standard practice.

This stagnation was a precondition for the involution of tech-sector workers. As companies shifted from expansion to extraction, the demands of work have lessened. Employees are still toiling to the tune of ruthless competition, but now with even less to go around—winner take none. With little to gain, workers are finding ways to slack off while maintaining an industrious facade, a delicate balance called moyu (touching fish). The term originates from the traditional idiom hunshui moyu (fishing in muddied water), used by Sun Tzu in The Art of War to describe taking advantage of a chaotic situation. In addition to taking extended bathroom breaks, some workers stay in the office playing games on their phones late into the night, clocking out only after a certain number of hours have been logged. The idea is to “work” long hours while actually getting as little done as possible.

Moyu points to a larger problem: many workers at these internet companies are redundant, performing what David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”: “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence [while feeling] obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” Most 996 workers will tell you that the 996 regime has nothing to do with generating increased output or concrete results. They spend hours writing weekly reports and attending pointless meetings. The industry has become so bureaucratic and process-heavy that only a fraction of time is actually spent being productive. And most of that time is used to steal profits from competitors in a zero-sum game. (Sometimes, the company itself is redundant.) In practice, 996 became less an indicator of how much work there was to do than a way to demonstrate a willingness to work hard—even if it’s bullshit work.

 

996’s End Isn’t 1065’s Beginning

While the official end of 996 has been welcomed by most, workers remain skeptical that new policies will actually improve their lives. Some say that canceling 996 won’t reduce their workloads or the KPIs (key performance indicators) they have to keep up with. Instead of working out of their offices, where they can pick up free snacks or use the office gym to squeeze in a workout, many now have to take their work home, off the clock. All these factors are contingent on the whims of a worker’s direct supervisor, who may or may not respect the new policies around overtime. For most workers, not responding to their supervisor’s WeChat messages at any time, day or night, weekday or weekend, is virtually unthinkable.

As companies cancel 996, workers are also taking significant pay cuts. According to overtime-pay policies, workers receive double wages if they work weekends, and triple if they work over national holidays. When ByteDance ended the big-small week in August 2021, salaries were slashed by up to 17 percent. For workers with mortgages to pay off or schooling to put their children through, a pay cut simply isn’t worth it. Younger tech workers also complain that ending 996 impinges on their freedom to make extra money. Typically new to the cities where their jobs are located, and without a family to return to or care for, these college hires are more willing to trade their evenings and weekends for overtime pay.

The move to curb excessive overtime work looks good in theory, but many workers fear that they’ll get the worst of both worlds: a 1065 salary with a 996 workload. Some companies have already relapsed into old habits, forcing employees to work weekends. And even at places where weekends are off-limits, the twelve-hour workday has yet to be significantly reformed.

The move to end 996 belies a deeper problem for China’s internet giants: in a digital economy that is more and more reliant on extractive practices, profits are becoming increasingly detached from the industry’s relentless work schedule. Some companies have begun to catch up to these changes and are getting rid of surpluses in their workforces. Kuaishou and iQiyi (China’s answer to Netflix) both announced massive layoffs at the end of 2021, cutting up to 30 percent of their staffs. The move to cancel 996 satisfies the same aim: slash wages to cut costs.

Still, something has changed in the culture of white-collar overwork, and the end of 996 should serve as a call for celebration. Some tech workers will now have the time to catch a break, and maybe even to mobilize for a greater say in their workplaces. They are still far from the days of 1065, but it’s a starting point nonetheless.


JS Tan is a graduate student at MIT, a former tech worker, and a member of Collective Action in Tech, a project to advance the tech worker movement.


Lima