A 22-year-old woman left her office in Shanghai in the early hours of Dec. 29. That week, it was cold enough for pipes in many buildings to freeze. Trudging her way home with a few colleagues after long, seemingly unending shifts at work, she collapsed on the street at 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, people in China were outraged. The common “996” work schedule in China—9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, plus plenty of overtime—has been blamed for killing office workers before.
The woman who died on Dec. 29 worked for a company called Pinduoduo, an e-commerce business that functions 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 largest cities. In the race for profit against tech behemoths like Alibaba, Pinduoduo expects its coders and other staff to put in insane hours at work.
Over the weekend, on Jan. 9, another employee of the company, a software engineer with the surname Tan, committed suicide by jumping off the 27th floor of a building.
Pinduoduo said in a statement issued later that day that it learned of Tan’s “unfortunate death” from his father. The company said it was “waiting for the relevant departments to wrap up their investigation into the cause” of Tan’s suicide.
The Daily Beast reached out to Pinduoduo for further comments, but received no response.
In the meantime, the company has set up psychological counseling and emergency support for its staff, but there have been previous alleged issues at the company.
Half an hour after one developer at Pinduoduo—who uses the pseudonym Wang Taixu—went online to post about a co-worker who had to be taken away from their workplace and loaded onto an ambulance, his supervisors asked for his resignation. Wang refused, and he was fired on the spot.
Wang’s post had already gone viral, and he has since made further allegations about the workplace culture of China’s tech scene. Here’s one point that stands out: for certain critical teams, anyone who doesn’t churn code for at least 380 hours per month—that’s more than 12 hours a day, every day of the week—gets written up by management.
In a video, Wang said, “Tech companies are becoming China’s new sweatshops, but the people they enslave are the country’s smartest individuals.”
Much like the widespread Japanese phenomenon of karoshi—literally “overwork death,” which is often caused by strokes, heart attacks, or starvation—996 is not specific to just one company in China. These work schedules are widely seen as the accepted status quo and part of the unofficial management playbook at nearly every major tech firm.
Last year, one human resources professional who works in a company in Beijing told The Daily Beast, “Everyone else does it. If we don’t do it too, our company will have to cut jobs, and then those who are left will need to work even harsher hours.” A coder also confessed that he has broken down in his office’s restroom several times in the past two years, bawling. There was no single trigger. Work-related pressure was all-encompassing, all the time.
The death of the woman who collapsed in December was made all the more gruesome when someone using Pinduoduo’s account on Zhihu—China’s version of Quora—wrote a post that said dismissively, “Take a look at the people who are part of the lower rungs. They all trade their lives for money.”
Pinduoduo said screenshots of the post were forged, but Zhihu confirmed that the post was online for just under half a minute before it was deleted by whoever was logged in to the account. This entire episode has led to intense backlash among China’s office workers, especially younger members of the workforce, and renewed criticism of companies that demand staff to work themselves to the bone or much worse.
It comes as no surprise that the founders of major tech conglomerates—all billionaires now thanks to the ceaseless labor of the people who joined their companies—are the most vocal proponents of the 996 schedule.
Jack Ma, the tech tycoon behind Alibaba and one of China’s richest men, once called 996 a “huge blessing,” and that anyone who worked shorter hours “won’t taste the happiness and rewards of hard work.”
One of Ma’s main rivals, Richard Liu, shared a similar outlook with an extra dose of macho attitude. Liu said China’s economic growth and middle-class living conditions have bred a workforce of “slackers” that “are not my brothers,” and so the tough conditions must continue.
Mentions of 996 go as far back as 2016, but it wasn’t until 2019 that state-run media organizations blasted China’s tech companies for implementing the practice. A series of reports and op-eds in People’s Daily, Xinhua, and other outlets described 996 as illegal and “toxic,” as a mechanism that trades life for profit and serves corporate interests to the detriment of social and popular harmony.
And yet Chinese authorities have done little beyond issuing fines to stop Chinese companies from exploiting their staff. One Shanghai-based software developer told The Daily Beast in early January that “the crunch never stops, I’m just part of a machine, and a highly replaceable part at that.” The programmer recalled a series of suicides at Foxconn factories where Apple products were assembled.
When blue-collar factory workers who pieced together iPhones plunged to their deaths one by one a decade ago, they were quickly replaced on the assembly line. Now, China’s tech workers face the same situation, where they feel crushed by their tycoon bosses and are trying to shake the feeling that they might not make it out alive.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741