Chinese Work Culture

Gen Z are “lying down” on Chinese work culture: Is it time to say “bye” to 996?

Modern day Chinese work culture is focusing on strict a hierarchical structure and long work hours. Clocking on average 46 hours of work a week, which is about 10 more than the average in the US and Europe, Chinese employees are often compelled to make sacrifices for their employers. The IT sector in China is particularly infamous for its long work hours and lack of holydays. But as the Chinese population gains access to better standards of living, newer generations are increasingly rejecting the concept of living solely for work. In this article we will explain what the characteristics of the Chinese work culture are and how some Chinese Gen Zers are trying to make a change.

What to know about the Chinese work culture

China’s 996 work culture

996 is a term to describe working shifts that would start from 9 am to 9pm, 6 days a week totalling a whooping 72 hours per week.  An employee has to stay in the office until late in the evening.

The origin of this particular Chinese work culture could go back to the 1970’s with China’s economic policies and opening to the west. In order to develop the Chinese economy and take the country out of poverty it became a norm to work overtime. It was important to work around the clock to attain a “first-mover” advantage on their competitors.

The 996 work culture has also helped keep China’s wages low despite a slow but steady increase in recent years. This helps maintain China’s competitive advantage over the West.

The 996 working system is not a formal policy in a company, rather it is an unwritten but important rule. Even if there is no actual work or tasks, employees would stay longer to show dedication and commitment. Hence, peer pressure is a major factor for such working hours.

An overview of the typical 996 work week Chinese work culture
Image: China Bizconnect. An overview of the typical 996 work week

China’s 996 work culture is mostly predominant in the tech industry

The 996 work culture is most seen in big companies (such as Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei or and other tech companies. During the technological start up boom in the 2000s, companies such as Tencent or Alibaba appeared, 20 years later they became one of China’s most successful companies. Relentless work may account for their success. Companies could not hire employees as fast as the company’s growth, they therefore had to work longer hours, starting from overtime work one day a week to every day. It then became the present 996 work culture.

Other types of Chinese work culture

There are other variants to the 996 Chinese work culture such as 8106 (from 8AM to 10PM, 6 days per week), 997 (from 9AM to 9PM, 7 days per week). However, the 007 work culture is the most striking. Under this work culture, an employee would have to work from 0am to 0pm 7 days per week, in other words 24 hours a day, which means he or she would have to be available online all day. With the development of internet and technology it has been easier to work out of the office, consequently work culture such as 996 and 007 have appeared. It is important to note that not all Chinese employees work such hectic schedules. Service companies such as newspapers tend to follow the 955 working system or have flexible working hours.

How Chinese Gen-Z are rejecting harsh work culture

The 躺平 or “Lying flat” trend

Lying flat (躺平) literally means “lying down and resting”. As an internet buzzword, it has come to mean “I don’t want to fight”, and or many people it means not following the unwritten rules of past-paced society, such as not buying a house nor buying a car, not marrying, not having children, and to some, not consuming and maintaining the minimum standard of survival. Ultimately, in work terms, it is refusing to become a machine for others to make money.

Some Chinese workers are rejecting the Chinese work culture because they consider that they cannot balance their work and life at the same time. Apart from commuting to work and sleeping they are not able to do other activities as they are stuck at work and feel constantly tired and pressured. By “lying flat” they are able to show their disagreement with the Chinese work culture which relies on hard work and long working hours.

illustration representing the sentiment of “lying flat” Chinese work culture
Image: SCMP, illustration representing the sentiment of “lying flat”

The 996.ICU protest

The 996.ICU protest started on March 27 2019 on a GitHub page. GitHub is a Microsoft subsidiary and provider of Internet hosting for software development and version control using Git. The name suggests that working 996 could lead employees to the ICU (Intensive Care Unit). It was a protest to critic and denounce the 996 work culture. It denounced not only the long working hours but also the fact that most of overtime is unpaid.

A group of Chinese developers also created a list of companies that followed and advised working 996 in which tech giants such as Alibaba, Huawei, or Youzan were mentioned. A list of companies that allowed flexible working hours or promoted 955 regimens was also present on the GitHub page. It was mostly foreign companies such as Amazon, Google or that were cited in the list.

The 996.ICU GitHub page has received 257,583 stars and is the highest rated GitHub to date.

Short after the 996.ICU protest went live, Jack Ma, Founder of Alibaba commented on the 996 Chinese work culture : “[working 996] is a huge blessing that many companies and employees don’t have the opportunity to benefit from” and “If you join Alibaba, you should get ready to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why would you come to Alibaba? We don’t need those who comfortably work 8 hours”.

Is Chinese work culture going to change any time soon?

Even though the 996 is common in big companies, it is actually illegal. The current labour law of the People’s Republic of China stipulates that the daily working hours of workers shall not exceed 8 hours, and the average weekly working hours shall not exceed 44 hours. 36 hours per month of overtime are allowed. However, people not always follow the law. Very often, workers do not fill in their overtime hours with the human resources department, meaning that they do not get money for them.

Even if Chinese Gen-Z consider that working 72 hours a week is not appropriate, they seem resigned to follow the present Chinese work culture. They feel that to get a good job and a good salary it is necessary to work hard. Young Chinese also consider that it is their duty to look for their parents and grandparents, lying back (躺平) is not a solution for them.

Tencent’s initiative for a more positive work culture

Recently, Lightspeed and Quantum Studios (光子工作室), owned by Tencent has introduced policies that keep employees from working overtime and encourage them to take vacations. Soon after the announcement the hash-tags “What if we only have to work eight hours a day” #如果每天只上8个小时班# and “Why is it so hard to leave work on time in big Chinese internet companies” #大厂正点下班为什么这么难 have gathered 240 million views as of June 11, 2021 and the hash-tag “#Tencent pilots compulsory get off work at 6:00” (#腾讯试点强制六点下班) gained 700 million views on Weibo. The pushback against the 996 has also compelled Kaishou to recently cut mandatory working hours on Sundays for their employees.

Nonetheless, no one can say for sure that other companies will follow these new policies and whether or not they will fully implement the rules.

Key takeaways about Chinese work culture

  • Work culture in China encourages employees to work long hours to distinguish themselves and eventually earn a promotion. Employees are often have to work overtime and on weekends as part of their normal workload.
  • The Chinese IT industry is particularly notorious for its long working hours. Some of the biggest groups having up to 72 hours work weeks with the infamous 996 work culture.
  • More and more Chinese Gen Zers reject the 996 system, claiming their right for a comfortable life and “lie flat”.
  • Despite a push for change and regulations forbidding abusively long work schedules, little progress has been maid so far in the big picture. But some companies have taken the initiative not follow the 996 trend.

Check out our piece on the Stay-at-home economy in China!