China is clamping down on its “excessive work culture that pervades the country’s largest corporations,” Bloomberg reported. President Xi Jinping’s administration launched a campaign to control the fast-growing power of the country’s biggest corporations. The government also told the private sector to share the wealth with the people.
It seems that the Chinese government has seen the acceleration of power wielded by both the big near-monopolistic United States tech companies and the uber rich, and are taking aggressive actions to avoid the same situation in China.
The ruling party curtailed the use of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in China and championed its own digital assets. The recent moves may be in reaction to the issues currently plaguing the U.S., including wealth inequality, highly concentrated wealth and powerful corporate influence. President Xi Jinping’s actions indicate that he wants to avoid these problems and maintain his power and control.
There is “a growing chorus of complaints” rising against China’s large tech companies and its “grueling” work requirements. CNN reported, “Recently, extreme overtime work in some industries has received widespread attention.” The Supreme People’s Court wrote, “Workers deserve rights for “rest and vacation.” The ruling added that “adhering to the national working hour system is the legal obligation of employers.” The matter included an instance in which “a media staffer passed out in the office restroom at 5.30 a.m. before dying of heart failure. The court ruled the death work-related and asked the company to pay the victim’s family about 400,000 yuan ($61,710).”
Jack Ma is the founder of Alibaba and has a net worth of $40.6 billion. He’s a charismatic, charming businessperson who epitomized China’s version of the American “rags to riches” story. Once heralded, Ma came under fire for his views on his embrace of the work culture known as “996.” This number refers to Ma’s belief that everyone in his company should happily work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
From his earliest days in the late ‘90s, Ma preached to a small scrappy group of employees that they must emulate the “hard-working spirit of Silicon Valley” to compete against them. “If we go to work at 8 a.m. and go home at 5 p.m., this is not a high-tech company.” Ma added, “I personally think that 996 is a huge blessing. How do you achieve the success you want without paying extra effort and time?”
Ma went missing after criticizing China’s financial system by calling for changes and reforms and wasn’t seen for about two months. He “retired” from Alibaba in September 2019. There was speculation, at the time, that Ma’s retirement was due to tension with the Chinese Communist Party. It was believed that the leaders of the Party were leery of his outsized power and influence.
Ma criticized China’s banking system, deeming it run with a “pawnshop” mentality, during a conference. His speech preceded the planned initial public offering of his Ant Group. Since then, the Chinese government has taken actions against Ma and his companies, including an antitrust investigation into Alibaba.
The Washington Post reported that prominent Chinese entrepreneurs who receive press attention are more likely to be investigated or arrested compared to those who shy away from media coverage. Ma ominously and presciently told a group of rural teachers in 2016, “I think among the richest men in China, few have good endings.” The disappearance of wealthy business professionals isn’t unusual in China and has been occurring for a while. According to a 2017 piece in the Independent, “Chinese billionaires and CEOs keep disappearing in ‘state-sanctioned abductions.’”
Ma is not the only one espousing these views. Over the last couple of decades, China has powered its economy to rival America’s dominance. The push by the Communist Party leaders hasn’t come without a cost. The country’s punishing hardcore work ethic has a dark underside to it.
Fortune reported on two heartbreaking deaths of workers in China’s tech sector. One person is believed to have overworked himself to death and the second was a death by suicide. The deaths, people say, were due to the prevailing toxic “996” work culture. The term is similar to America’s current hustle-porn culture and dates back to our Protestant work ethic, which viewed work as a duty that benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Before Covid-19, a popular work ethos was the requirement to wake up early in the morning, hit the gym, slay it at the office until late in the evening, work weekends and crush your competitors.
According to Vice, in addition to societal pressures to conform by working long hours, China had “weak law enforcement.” Labor laws mandate that people shouldn’t work over eight hours a day and overtime should be limited. Despite the official rules, “996” appears to be the rule at many offices.
“Underperforming employees [are] subjected to bizarre punishments, of which public humiliation is commonplace.” This includes instances in which workers were photographed holding signs saying they won the “freeloader award” and were told to share them on their social media accounts. A man was forced to “dance around the office clad in black pantyhose” and if an employee refused, they were fired. There are stories of workers ordered to eat and drink “raw bitter gourd, toilet water and even live worms.” A person who took a picture of an ambulance arriving at his office—to attend to an overworked employee who collapsed on the job—was summarily fired for this perceived offense.
A relatively new sociological term “involution” was coined. It means that “technological advancement in a society is no longer reflected in improved living standards among its people,” which may account for China’s brutal work-life and the ugly aspects of America’s hustle culture.
The younger generation of Chinese workers are not fond of Ma’s work code. As reported by the South China Morning Post, the Gen-Z workers are known to “slack off by refusing to work overtime, delivering medium-quality work, going to the toilet frequently and staying there for a long time, playing with their mobile phones or reading novels at work.”
This is their way of pushing back on the demands of long hours without pay that is commensurate with their efforts. Working at a slower pace is a form of protest. It’s their way of saying, “We don’t think that we’re being treated fairly.” Similar to the complaints of both Millennials and Gen-Z in the U.S., the Chinese Gen-Zers contend that their meager earnings won’t afford them a house or a financially comfortable life. As opposed to prior generations, some of the Chinese youth are not buying into the hustle culture and putting a premium on having a well-rounded lifestyle.