China’s Brutal Working Culture


any of you have probably heard the term 996. It’s a reference to the typical working week for many Chinese professionals, especially within China’s tech sector. It means you work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week.

Sounds brutal right? Outside of investment bankers and some management consultants, it’s something white-collar workers in the U.S. don’t really face. But in China, it’s just a continuation of the rat race that people have been on since they were little kids. For those who weren’t born into money or connections, China is an intensely competitive place.

First, where you were born determines your hukou, a registration that determines what city you belong to (originally created to reduce the geographic and economic mobility of China’s rural citizens). If you weren’t lucky enough to be born into the hukou of a tier 1 city like Shanghai or Beijing, then getting into a top university becomes even harder (from what I’ve heard, if you grew up in a low-tier city or a rural area, then going to a top school like Peking University is exponentially more difficult than getting into Stanford or Harvard).

Next, you need to get into a top company. The mean annual salary in places like Beijing where even modest condos cost millions of dollars (USD) is just under $25,000. But engineering jobs from top firms like Alibaba or Tencent pay the same as what Google and Apple pay American software engineers. This means that if you can get into one of these companies, you can expect to make 10 to 20 times the average salary.

Thus, the divide between the top and average in terms of job compensation is significantly wider in China than in the U.S., which makes workers that much more desperate to land a top job as it can truly be life-changing. Couple this limited supply of high-paying jobs with the much larger population of China and you can start to see why so many Chinese are willing to work 996. If they don’t, someone else will.

And 996 is not just about showing up and spacing out. Your productivity is closely monitored and managers sometimes use perverse competition to weed out folks who aren’t meeting the brutally high corporate expectations. For example, I was shocked to hear how some of China’s big social media companies developed mobile games (I heard this from their engineers). To minimize time to market, two engineering teams are both given the same spec for the same game — it’s a race, and the team that delivers a passable product first wins. And the losers are fired!

Thus to keep these once-in-a-lifetime jobs (in terms of compensation), people end up working brutal hours, backstabbing coworkers, missing critical family events, and even developing permanent health problems.

Is it worth it? To a foreign outsider, it’s obviously not. Chinese workers are treated like disposable tools, worked to the bone, and then thrown out when they’re no longer able to produce at optimal levels. To insiders, the jury is out as well. People working 996 hours are often happy that they can financially support their parents, afford real estate, and send their children to the best schools. But in return, they can basically never turn off. They’re literally always on call — and constantly face intense pressure.

Maybe I’m being naive because I’m reasonably comfortable, but all that money doesn’t count for much if you’ve overworked yourself into a nervous breakdown. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s Goldman Sachs in New York or Alibaba in Hangzhou, paying above market doesn’t give people the right to exploit others. Overwork and hustle culture is toxic as are companies that embrace this kind of workplace.

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