Chinese tech companies push staff to the limit

8 min read


In a recent video conference with office staff, JD.com founder Richard Liu added a warning into his pep talk: his company did not have room for anyone who wanted work-life balance.

“We have employees who prefer to enjoy life, who put life first and work second. I can understand not wanting to work hard, everyone makes different choices . . . so I can only say that you are not our brother, you are a passer-by,” Liu told attendees, according to a recording posted on social media. “We should not be working together.”

Liu said the Chinese ecommerce group would step up efforts to weed out IT engineers who were not working hard and not delivering, while rewarding employees doing well.

The warning was not unusual. As executives across China’s tech industry face a new reality of low growth, rising competition and investor apathy, many are cutting staff and making tougher demands of those they keep.

Engineers in China have never enjoyed the level of perks offered by peers in Silicon Valley, where employees have benefits such as onsite doctors and sushi bars. Jack Ma, founder of Chinese ecommerce company Alibaba, infamously told staff the tech industry’s standard 996 hours (9am to 9pm, six days a week) were “a blessing”. But the unremitting schedule has improved in recent years under President Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” campaign, which aims to reduce income inequality and promote fairness.

Now, as growth sputters and share prices suffer — China’s top five publicly traded tech companies have collectively lost about $1.3tn in market value from their peak levels in 2021 — executives are returning to their leaner and meaner start-up days.

Some in the industry view ecommerce group Pinduoduo as a model to emulate. Last year the Shanghai-based company generated Rmb60bn (£6.5bn) in profit — or Rmb3.4mn for each of its 17,000 employees — triple the productivity of Tencent and nine times that of Alibaba.

To do so, Pinduoduo staff work gruelling hours. In 2021 two employees died in incidents that colleagues linked to overwork. One former employee said the hours were so long during her two years at the company that she basically stopped “social interactions, hobbies and even my romantic life”. “After I left, it was like reconnecting with society,” she said.

Pinduoduo said it was a “dynamic and fast-paced company” and “committed to providing our employees with a positive and productive work environment”.

In a recent video conference with staff, JD.com founder Richard Liu added a warning into his pep talk
In a recent video conference with staff, JD.com founder Richard Liu added a warning into his pep talk © Billy H.C Kwok/Bloomberg

To boost their own efficiency, industry pillars Alibaba and Tencent have shed tens of thousands of staff since 2021. Tencent executives admitted that when hiring, they were adding “lower-cost heads”, typically meaning younger workers.

Ding Wenhua*, who recently left ByteDance-owned TikTok, said dodging job losses felt like a game in which the platform they were standing on kept randomly shrinking, forcing them to jump around to avoid falling off. “The feeling of potential lay-offs is always there, and everyone is quite tense and worried about it.”

New euphemisms sugarcoat the pain. Companies talk about “optimising” their workforce, and staff tell friends they are “being graduated” or receiving “big gift packages” from employers, meaning they have been let go with severance payouts.

The upheaval is most traumatic for older tech professionals, typically anyone over 35, who face the greatest threat of redundancy and the toughest job market. Bosses often see over-35s as expensive and less willing to put up with long working hours because of responsibilities at home. “It’s never been this hard to find a job,” said one infrastructure engineer approaching 40, who was recently made redundant from ride-hailing company DiDi.

Jenny Chan, associate professor of sociology at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, added that tech companies were “looking for young, unmarried talents who have time flexibility in megacities, while letting go of the older and ‘less competitive’ ones”. “Conflicts between work and household are acute for those with families,” she said.

Last year job platform Lagou and counselling service Yixinli polled 2,200 professionals in China’s largest cities about their work. The survey showed 60 per cent felt anxious about unclear career development prospects and 44 per cent were worried about the lack of work-life balance.

“Many people in this industry experience some degree of depression, the pressure on us is very high,” said one China-based TikTok employee, who stated she was on and off medication for mental health issues. TikTok’s global presence meant work never ended, she said. “I often attend meetings in the middle of the night.”

Employees take naps during lunch hour at Tencent in Guangzhou, China
Employees take naps during lunch hour at Tencent in Guangzhou, China © Qilai Shen/The New York Times/Redux/eyevine

The 31-year-old said the demanding culture at parent company ByteDance was more stressful than the long hours. She referred to it as neijuan, a term widely used in China to describe the relentless competition to outdo peers.

Biao Xiang, a social anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute, said the word, which translates as “involution”, had grown in popularity in China as workers linked their personal uncertainty to broader shifts. “The economy in general is not growing any more, so there is no absolute increase of opportunities,” Xiang said. “What do you do? You just have to squeeze more out of yourself, out of your workers, ever intensifying your effort without producing any real gains.”

For many in China, comments from Baidu’s vice-president of public relations, Qu Jing, last month exemplified how neijuan plays out. In a series of short videos posted online, Qu ranted about her expectations for staff, such as being willing to accompany her for more than a month of business travel.

“If you don’t want to travel with me for 50 days and you want to go home, don’t come asking me for a raise or a promotion,” she said in one video. Qu added that she expected staff to always be on call. Nor did she care if work affected their personal lives. “I’m not your mum,” she said. “I only care about results.”

After Qu’s short videos went viral in China, Baidu let her go and said her views did not represent the company’s culture.

But tech workers who spoke with the Financial Times said they recognised Qu’s attitude in their own bosses, who expected work to always come first. Devotion, they said, was a prerequisite for getting ahead, and work hours were often enforced by requiring staff to swipe in and out.

“Even when you’re on leave, you basically still have to reply to messages,” said Ding. “Meetings you are supposed to attend, you better still attend, otherwise it can get very troublesome.”

A developer at Tencent Games agreed that work was often all-consuming. “Outwardly, I appear very calm,” he said. “But the pressure is intense, we’re like gears grinding until they break due to lack of lubrication.

“On weekends, if I don’t have to work overtime, I shut myself in for two days so I don’t have to talk.” He blamed neijuan and the lack of independent worker unions for the situation.

Tencent, ByteDance and JD did not respond to requests for comment.

Workers monitor computers in a command centre at the headquarters of online retailer JD.com in Beijing
Workers monitor computers in a command centre at the headquarters of online retailer JD.com in Beijing. Tech workers have made some progress pushing back against long hours © Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Still, for many in China, tech remains the best sector to work in. Fresh graduates are attracted by companies’ relative meritocracy, where hard work and strong performance can lead to social mobility. The industry has among the highest-paying jobs in the country, especially as Beijing put pressure on financial institutions to reduce staff salaries.

“The reason I stay is simple — the pay is high,” said the TikTok employee. “It’s a place where ordinary people can enjoy opportunity through hard work.” Companies also generally offer perks such as free meals and onsite gyms.

Tech workers have made some progress pushing back against long hours.

In 2019, programmers organised a campaign against the industry standard 996 hours. It became known as 996.icu, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a saying that the work schedule ends with admission to intensive care. They gathered on GitHub, beyond the reach of Beijing’s censors.

The anti-996 movement briefly won the sympathy of state-run media. In 2021, with President Xi cracking down on personalities such as Ma, China’s supreme court declared the 996 schedule illegal. The victory did not come without costs. Authorities detained three labour activists involved in the campaign and sentenced them to prison terms of two to five years.

Tech sector employees report that expectations for regular in-office Saturday work has ended at most companies, even though weekday hours remain long.

But for bosses facing China’s intensely competitive tech field, the drive to push employees persists.

Li Ming, a tech founder, said he was contemplating how to get his small team to work harder, adding he was unhappy some employees left before he did each evening.

“On the one hand I understand my employees leaving at 7.30pm every night, they have families to get back to,” he said. “On the other hand, I want them to work to 9 or 10, that is what our competitors do. How can we survive if we don’t as well?”

*Names of tech sector professionals have been changed

Additional reporting by Wenjie Ding and Kai Waluszewski



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