A 22-year-old woman left her Shanghai office in the early hours of December 29. It was cold enough that week that the pipes in many buildings froze. On her way home with a few co-workers after long, seemingly endless shifts, she collapsed in the street around 1:30 a.m. She could not be resuscitated and died six hours later.
When news of the young woman’s death hit social media, the Chinese were outraged. China’s “996” joint work schedule – 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week, plus a lot of overtime – has previously been accused of killing office workers.
The woman who died on December 29 worked for a company called Pinduoduo, an e-commerce company that operates like Groupon and whose shares are traded in the United States. It is an extremely popular platform in China, especially outside of the country’s biggest cities. In the race for profit against tech giants like Alibaba, Pinduoduo expects its coders and other staff to spend insane working hours.
Over the weekend on January 9, another company employee, a software engineer last name Tan, committed suicide by jumping from the 27th floor of a building.
Pinduoduo said in a statement later today that he learned of Tan’s “unfortunate death” from his father. The company said it was “waiting for relevant departments to conclude their investigation into the cause” of Tan’s suicide.
The Daily Beast reached out to Pinduoduo for further comment, but received no response.
In the meantime, the company has put in place psychological counseling and emergency support for its staff, but there have been suspected problems at the company.
Half an hour after a developer at Pinduoduo – who uses the pseudonym Wang Taixu – went online to post about a colleague who was to be taken from his workplace and loaded into an ambulance, his superiors requested his resignation. Wang refused and was fired immediately.
Wang’s post had already gone viral, and he has since made other workplace culture allegations of China’s tech scene. Here’s one point that stands out: For some critical teams, anyone who doesn’t deactivate code for at least 380 hours a month – that’s more than 12 hours a day, every day of the week – is written by management.
In a video, Wang said, “Tech companies are becoming China’s new sweatshop, but the people they enslave are the smartest people in the country.
Just like the widespread Japanese phenomenon of Karoshi– literally “death from overwork,” often caused by stroke, heart attack or starvation – 996 is not specific to a single company in China. These work schedules are widely regarded as the accepted status quo and are part of the unofficial management manual of almost every big tech company.
Last year, an HR professional who works for a company in Beijing told the Daily Beast, “Everyone does it. If we don’t too, our company will have to cut jobs, and those who remain will have to work even harder. A coder also confessed that he had broken down in his office bathroom several times over the past two years, screaming. There was no single trigger. The pressure of work was global, all the time.
The death of the woman who collapsed in December was all the more gruesome because someone using Pinduoduo’s account of Zhihu – the Chinese version of Quora – wrote a post that said contemptuously, “Look at the people who belong to the lower echelons. They all trade their lives for money.
Pinduoduo said screenshots of the post were tampered with, but Zhihu confirmed that the post was online for just under half a minute before it was deleted by anyone logged into the account. This whole episode has led to an intense backlash among Chinese office workers, especially younger members of the workforce, and new criticism of companies demanding staff work to the bone or else worst.
It’s no surprise that the founders of the great tech conglomerates – all billionaires now thanks to the tireless work of people who have joined their companies – are the 996 agenda’s most vocal supporters.
Jack Ma, the tech mogul behind Alibaba and one of China’s richest men, once called 996 a “huge blessing,” and that anyone who has worked fewer hours “won’t taste the happiness and the rewards for hard work.
One of Ma’s main rivals, Richard Liu, shared a similar outlook with an added dose of macho attitude. Liu said China’s economic growth and middle-class living conditions have spawned a labor force of “lazy” who “are not my brothers,” and therefore the harsh conditions must continue.
Mentions of 996 date back to 2016, but it wasn’t until 2019 that state media organizations blasted Chinese tech companies for implementing the practice. A series of reports and opinion pieces in People’s Daily, Xinhua, and other media have described 996 as illegal and “toxic,” as a mechanism that trades life for profit and serves corporate interests at the expense of social and popular harmony.
And yet Chinese authorities have done little beyond fines to prevent Chinese companies from exploiting their staff. A Shanghai-based software developer told the Daily Beast in early January that “the crisis never ends, I’m just part of a machine, and a highly replaceable part on top of that. The programmer recalled a series of suicides at Foxconn factories where Apple products were assembled.
When blue collar workers who assembled iPhones plunged to their deaths one by one ten years ago, they were quickly replaced on the assembly line. Now, Chinese tech workers are facing the same situation, where they feel crushed by their tycoon bosses and try to shake off the feeling that they might not make it out alive.
If you or a loved one is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK at 741741
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