Who’s Winning in China’s Fight Against 996?
Paris Marx is joined by JS Tan to discuss how Chinese tech workers fought against “996” work practices and whether the its phaseout is being driven by that movement or by the changing needs of the government and tech companies.
JS Tan is a graduate student at MIT, a former tech worker, and a member of Collective Action in Tech, a project to advance the tech worker movement. Follow JS on Twitter at @organizejs.
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Paris Marx: JS, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us.
JS Tan: Thank you — very happy to be back.
PM: Very happy to have you back on the show. Last time, we had a fantastic conversation about Silicon Valley nationalism and its approach to China and all of these big questions. Now you have this new piece in Dissent that looks in particular at how tech workers in China are responding to these changes within the tech industry, and what is driving this kind of change in the 996 work culture. And so I want to discuss those things, so many other things in relation to what’s happening in the tech industry in China. But to give listeners a bit of a foundation, for people who might not be very familiar with the Chinese tech sector, I wanted to start by getting you to talk a little bit about China’s tech boom. When did this start to take off and what led to China’s tech sector growing in this really significant way?
JT: So I think this is a great place to start because it’s exactly the development of the Chinese tech sector that will lead us, quite nicely, into some of the details regarding 996. But let’s start with a brief overview. So, in the early 2000s, there really wasn’t much of an internet scene in China. Working in the industry was considered a risk — it represented a kind of opportunity, a way to make it big. But for the most part, I think it’s pretty safe to say that most people weren’t really trying to build a career in this sector. A turning point was when companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and several others were banned in China in the late 2000s, giving domestic firms a chance to really fill the vacuum that was left in their place. And so this led to this new period of the Chinese Internet where venture capital, including foreign investment, foreign venture capital, began pouring money into the industry. And so these were the years of opportunities — or in Chinese, we say “Fengkou” which means wind tunnels. So the term comes from one of the execs in China who famously said that even a pig could fly if it stood in the wind tunnel. And so what he’s pointing to with this phrase is that it really didn’t take much to make it big, as long as you pick the right opportunity.
And so in this era of Fengkou, companies flocked to new opportunities as they came up. And this essentially led to a period of intense competition in the sector, where every time a new opportunity came up, firms would dive in headfirst, crowd out the market with tens, if not hundreds of other competitors. One example that I like to point to is when Groupon entered the Chinese market, there were literally thousands of copycat competitors vying for this market. And just an important cultural note here is that, unlike Silicon Valley, copying is not stigmatized in this world. Ideas aren’t precious. Instead, the attitude towards copying, and China was really more of a prerequisite for joining the race. If you didn’t get to where the competition was by copying, you wouldn’t even have the opportunity to iterate and innovate from there.
PM: I think it gives us a really good kind of foundational overview of what was going on, and why the Chinese tech sector really started to take off in that particular moment. And when I was reading through your piece, and thinking about what actually led to the growth of this industry, it also made me think back to the export oriented, industrialization model of like many other Asian countries with regard to auto manufacturing, or electronics industries and things like that, where, you know, imports of those particular goods were limited so that local industries could develop. And it seemed very much like China was taking a similar approach to that in regard to its internet industry and the Internet sector. What does that mean, you know, in this period, where the Chinese internet sector is growing, what are the companies that are like in particular taking off in this moment? And what does it mean for workers who are joining the tech industry in China? What are the conditions that they are entering and that they are experiencing in this moment?
JT: So I’ll start with some of the big players and the Chinese tech sector. And maybe to come back a little bit, I’ll start by saying that, we say the Chinese tech sector, kind of like in the US, we say, the tech sector in the US and, what we primarily mean are consumer internet companies. And in China, this is even more so the case, right? So in the in the US, when we say the tech sector, we might think of companies like Facebook and Google, and these are certainly consumer internet companies. But we also think of the big enterprise companies like Microsoft, or the electronics companies like Apple. In China, the saturation, or the degree to which consumer internet is king is really much more severe. And so some of the biggest companies in China, the two that most people come to, or Alibaba and Tencent, these are kind of sprawling monopolies with a leg in almost every sort of sub sector of the internet, you have ByteDance, the creator of TikTok, as well as its Chinese equivalent, called Douyin. But the thing to know about ByteDance is that in this era of wind tunnels of Fengkou, they were very much sort of the perfect company for this time, because they were practically an app factory, constantly churning out new apps, and putting them out in the world just to sort of have a leg in every single race.
Now, there’s certainly others like JD.com, a competitor in the e-commerce space, Meituan and Ele.me. Tencent has a significant stake in Meituan, and Alibaba has a significant stake in Ele.me. But these are the two sort of main food delivery companies in China, although they’ve branched out to many other point-of-sale type services, as well. And so hopefully that gives you a sense of kind of the landscape. If you were to speak to what the kinds of working conditions wore during this time. You know, the first thing I would say is that the market for becoming a tech worker was highly competitive. It was one of the most sought after jobs for fresh college grads. At this point in the mid 2000-10s. It was really regarded as one of the most prestigious types of jobs that you can have after college. And so the reason for that was because the pay was perhaps some of the most competitive that you could get. But it also came with the expectation that its workers will be working really long hours really tough hours. And not unsurprisingly, this is because there was so much competition during this period of Fengkou. Right now it is workers after all, who drove this competition. They were the ones tasked with building out these platforms, constantly copying the competitors, replicating features, and really doing whatever it took to come out on top.
PM: One of the things that stands out in your piece is how there was all of this competition between these firms that were copying one another like in the Groupon example. And as a result, very small kind of improvements on what the other companies were offering, could be really significant in terms of gaining that market share and winning the dominance and becoming one of these major companies that kind of controls the space once the competition lessons. You were talking there about the 996 work culture that starts to emerge in this period. I’m wondering, is 996 something that is unique to China’s tech industry? Or do we see it in other industries as well? And when does concern start to arise about this kind of norm with how workers are being treated in those companies?
JT: To answer your first question, I’m not actually totally sure on the origins of 996. And it’s because it has a bit of a convoluted history. Certainly 996, the idea of working 9am to 9pm, six days a week, that didn’t come out of the 2019 mobilization against it. It certainly existed long before. And it was certainly present at some of the big companies like Alibaba. One of the companies that I found that tech workers constantly referred to when it comes to the origin of 996 is actually Huawei. And they’ve been known to have a quite ruthless work culture for many years. Whether or not this specific sort of flavor of overwork came from tech, I guess I don’t really know the answer to. But certainly, the problem of overwork has been around in China for a much longer time. And across many different sectors. In white collar work, for example, before tech was a huge thing, a lot of young professionals would go into advertising, or sales and marketing. And this was also considered one of the sectors that overworked its employees. If we look at blue collar workers, factory workers in particular, there are cases, even today of workers who are maybe given two days off in the month, and are working for the rest of it. And they are working perhaps from 9am to 11pm, at which point they go to a dorm that’s in the factory itself. And so the question of overwork is certainly not unique to tech sector, but has become quite drastic.
PM: No, I appreciate that. And if people want to know more about the work culture at companies like Foxconn, they could certainly go back to my interviews with Jenny Chan in September of 2020, or Brian Merchant in September of 2021, where we discuss those things. But I’m sure listeners of this podcast are probably familiar with some of those things as well. I wanted to stop here for a moment and ask, because you talked earlier about how the Chinese tech industry is much more oriented around these consumer facing tech companies than say, in the United States. Are there any other important similarities or differences that you see between the Chinese and American tech industries that you think are important to point out for the listeners?
JT: I think in terms of similarities, I would say that the venture funding model behind the logic of this industry is similar. But I guess that’s something that I kind of want to bring into the question of how we got to the state of involution. And I would say that both are places that have, at this point, quite a high degree of monopolization, and that it’s really a battle among the biggest firms at this point. And there, in both cases, haven’t been much space for smaller upstarts to really succeed. So I think that is one similarity across the two sectors. And I think when it comes to adjust the day-to-day tech work that happens in these offices, I would say that a tech worker in the US may not be entirely surprised by the kinds of tools and the kinds of workflows that they might see in China, and that maybe they’ll be surprised by things like the management practices. But at the end of the day, they’re going to be familiar with the same coding interfaces, the same IDs VS code, for example, using platforms like GitHub, or some equivalent to GitHub. And so I think in terms of the sort of labor process and sort of day-to-day, work, the day-to-day tools that people are interacting with, I think there are certainly going to be some similarities there.
PM: One of the things that stood out to me when I was reading a profile of Justin Sun’s Tron, published in The Verge last year, maybe it was early this year, was how there were offices in, I think, Shanghai, it was somewhere in China, and then obviously, San Francisco, and how I believe quite a bit of work ended up being pushed on the people in Beijing, because the work culture was so much longer. And there are other reasons for, I don’t know, I guess his desire to do that. So around 2019, we start to see a shift in the Chinese tech industry. We were in this period before where there was this high competition, there was this enormous growth of this, “value creation” that we were seeing in that period. And then as you’re talking about, the industry becomes more monopolized. here are these dominant companies that are controlling significant portions of the tech industry or particular sectors in particular. And that leads to a change in how the sector operates, how the government approaches the sector, how the workers in the sector are operating. So what happens in that period in 2019 to necessitate or start driving a shift within the tech industry?
JT: I think 2019 is a good place to start. Arguably, the stagnation was happening well before that. 2019 comes to mind, for many people for a few reasons. One of the reasons is because this was the year that the US-China trade war really heated up. This was also the year where we start to see a lot of sort of pushback from the US, particularly against the Chinese tech sector. That year was also the year where foreign venture capital funding was essentially depleted. And, and I think what that led to — the way I see it — was that these were really the preconditions for the 996.ICU mobilization that happened in 2019. And for those who are not familiar, the 996.ICU mobilization was a worker led campaign to essentially protest the working hours of 996. The idea behind ICU is that if you work 996, you’ll end up in the ICU. And there are certainly many cases of workers either dying from cardiac arrest or ending up in the ICU because of overwork. On one of the social media platforms in China called Zhihu, I actually found a tech worker who was doing this project where she was basically collecting all these incidences of tech workers who had died from cardiac arrest. And there’s kind of a shocking amount of white collar workers dying from overwork. And I think if I remember that that number peaked in the 2013, 2014 period.
PM: It’s really shocking. And obviously, this is something that we that we know. If people are working really long hours, they’re going to be stressed. It can have effects on their health and even lethal consequences. I feel like some of the stories I remember from, you know, that type of, of overwork is the Japanese salaryman and how often they would have to kind of stay at work as well. But obviously, we see that in these work cultures, not only in China, but in the tech industries and other countries as well, where this expectation of working so much is really present. So I want to talk about some of the other changes that we see happen after this period? You’re talking about how in 2019, we start to see the 996.ICU movement with this worker movement, we also see changes in the relationship between the US and China in regard to trade wars and things like that. In 2020, we start to see more of a crackdown by the Chinese state on the US tech sector in October of 2020, stopping Ant Group’s IPO. And then there are a number of other kinds of tech regulations that come through 2020 and 2021. Do you want to talk a little bit about the Chinese government’s orientation toward the tech industry in that period, and some of the regulations that it is putting on the sector?
JT: I think you actually covered quite a bit of the high level there. I’m certainly not an expert on Chinese tech policy. So my ability to speak to the specifics of the crackdown can be quite limited. But from what I know, sort of the main thrust of the crackdown, if we look at sort of the policies that have been put forward, are around antitrust, data security. And honestly, I think one of the big sort of perceptions that people had when the crackdown happened was that the Chinese government was trying to rein in the tech sector because it posed as a threat to the power of the state. And I can sympathize with that argument. But I see that the crackdown in a slightly different light. In that if you kind of look at the lack of antitrust regulation that was happening in China, it was far behind that of the US even. And so to come in and to say that we need to have some financial regulation to really keep these monopolies from all kinds of really absurd practices, it didn’t seem too absurd.
PM: I think that’s a good point, though, because when I think about these regulations as well, things like better protections for gig workers, or even some restrictions on like online games, the additional antitrust measures you talked about, a lot of these things just seem pretty common sense in my view, like things that don’t seem really bad. And so the desire or the attempt by some people to kind of frame it as though Oh, like the scary Chinese government is pushing back against the tech sector, I feel like that narrative doesn’t exactly fit with what we’re seeing, as you’re describing there. I feel like one important piece of what emerges in that moment as well, is President Xi’s “common prosperity” framework. What is that? And what role does it play in these tech regulations that are being put forward?
JT: I think it’s really important to frame the tech crackdown in terms of that, actually. Because other than sort of the crackdown on tech, we are seeing things like essentially axing the whole private tutoring industry, and these other things that fit a little bit more neatly into this broader narrative of common prosperity. In broad strokes, the idea is basically a way to tackle inequality in China, and to move towards an economy where the middle class takes up the majority of the wealth. I think common prosperity sounds great. But if you look carefully at what President Xi is talking about, as he outlines in a piece that he wrote, we actually see that common prosperity is really about restructuring the Chinese economy, for the purpose of national growth, and greater equality is just a means to get to that end. And so I think that is actually a really useful way for also seeing the tech sector. Because one interpretation of the tech crackdown that has been happening is that the Chinese government is just not willing to bet on consumer internet companies as the future of China’s growth anymore. And so at the same time, as we’re seeing the tech crackdown happening, we’re also seeing a new push for revitalizing Chinese manufacturing, upgrading Chinese manufacturing, in fact, a push for semiconductors, renewable energy, and sort of more technologies that are rooted in the hard sciences. And so this is one lens that we can take to understanding the tech crackdown — that it’s a shift from sort of the consumer internet to these hard technologies precisely for the reason that the government sees these internet technologies as not providing the kind of value that they used to anymore.
PM: That aligns with some of what I’ve read as well, beyond your piece. That it’s not so much a crackdown on the tech industry, but a reframing from the consumer orientation to more of a manufacturing orientation or something like that, to drive growth, and to drive consumption, not just kind of exporting these various products, but also kind of developing more of a domestic consumer market. So I want to ask a broad question here. And then I can zoom in with specific questions based on that. But when we look at the 996 movement, and the desire to push back against these long working hours and long working expectations within the tech industry, you kind of frame it, and you talk about it in three different ways. We can see it as the workers kind of pushing back against this, we can see it as the state really being concerned about it, or we can see it as the companies themselves and as capital are kind of reorienting what’s happening to benefit themselves. So do you want to talk a bit about how you see that 996 movement and the different ways of approaching it or understanding it in terms of various frameworks that you outline?
JT: I think you sort of laid out the framework that I used in my essay, exactly. My essay essentially looks at this question of why in a tech industry that seems to be booming, has all these tech companies, including Tencent, Kuaishou, JD.com, ByteDance, why have these big tech companies decided to cancel a practice cancel nine sets of practice that has supposedly fueled so much of its growth? And so my essay approaches this question, basically, in three ways. The first is to sort of look at workers as sort of the main agent of change here. So exploring the idea that it was workers themselves that mobilized for this change, specifically, in the case of 996, mobilizing against the the 996 schedule. And I think that this is a compelling argument, because tech workers certainly have a lot of sway within a company. But during the 996 mobilization, they were also able to appeal very, very broadly to the mainstream. And given that a lot of the internet companies in China are consumer facing, the brand image is extremely important. So that’s one dimension that I explore in my essay.
The second dimension is the role of government in this decision to cancel 996 by these tech companies. And so more broadly, I’m asking, what is it that the government gets from strong arming the industry to stop the practice? So for example, is it simply that the working schedule breaks the labor law, which the government must at all costs uphold? Or is it because ending 996 aligns with what we were talking about earlier with the move to common prosperity and greater equality? Or are there some other underlying sort of developmental goals of the state that 996 aligns with, that canceling 996 aligns with? And then the last dimension that I want to talk about is thinking about how the logic of capitalism itself has led to this conclusion. So asking the question, how has the development of the consumer internet sector led to its own stagnation? How has moving from an era of intense interfirm competition to one that is now dominated by monopolies? How is that affected the workplace? And so these are the sort of three main strategies that I use to sort of get at this question. And, of course, that’s not to say that I think we have to pick one. And it’s only one of these that has caused the the cancellation of 996 by many companies. In fact, it’s likely a mix of all three. But as you can tell, from reading my piece, I do lean into one of the three more than the rest, which is just something that we could talk about more.
PM: You’ve outlined those three different approaches to it; there’s three different ways that we can see it, maybe we should dig more into each one to understand the role that these various players have played in challenging 996 or potentially reorienting or changing how we how we should think about this work practice. And so let’s start with the workers. What have the workers done to push back on 996? And what role have they played in trying to change the way that people think about this?
JT: Okay, so the argument that I think we can make here for why tech workers are driving this change is that, I think for the better part of the past decade, there’s been really good evidence to show that there’s been developing class consciousness among tech workers. So programmers who are traditionally seen as part of the professional class or even the entrepreneurial class, are now sort of seeing themselves increasingly as workers. And if we look at the way tech workers articulate their shared identity on places like Zhihu, various social media platforms, there really is a lot of evidence to suggest this, for example, it’s common for workers to call each “manong,” which means something like coding peasant, or “dagongren,” which, I guess, we can translate to worker, but is sort of typically used to reference construction workers or factory workers, or other low paying types of jobs. Another term that has become popular is calling themselves dasa, which kind of means loser, and it’s for whatever reason, specifically for men as well, or coding monkey is also a common one. And that’s perhaps an indicator of how tech workers are increasingly seeing their work as repetitive or unskilled. And so the argument here is basically that with class consciousness, workers should be able to band together to unite and fight for the class interests, and in this case, pressure management to stop the 996 practice.
And so, this brings us back to the campaign in 2019, the 996.ICU movement, where workers did band together to push back against the schedule. And, you know, like I was trying to get out a little bit earlier, this campaign did have a lot of success, right, and not only drew attention to nine, six all around the world, it also made it kind of the sort of mainstream topic for news outlets to cover in China. And the public pressure is also something that might sway these companies who are so sensitive to their brand images. However, as much as I support change from the bottom, you know, I think this to me, the driving force that sort of ended 996, that led to the cancellation of 996 policy in these companies. And I think one of the main things we can point to is simply that right after the mobilization, most tech companies didn’t actually change the work schedule. It was only two years after the mobilization happened where we start to see companies change this policy.
PM: That’s interesting. So, I guess the initial movement is in 2019, but it’s not until 2021 when we start to see these kind of shifts emerging. And so that’s kind of the response of workers of the way that workers have brought this to people’s attention, and made it a real topic for consideration for discussion, too, as something to try to change. Now, we’ve talked about the state and what the state has been doing recently in in regulating the tech companies and changing the way that it approaches the tech sector. If you look at the state’s perspective on 996, what might be driving its approach to see this change?
JT: I think the argument for the state can be quite simple, or it can be quite complicated. So on the simple side, we can point to the fact that in 2021, a top government official reiterated the point that the practice of 996 oversteps China’s labor law, and that must be ended. So off the bat, that’s a pretty convincing kind of reason for companies to end the practice. But I think the argument is actually a little bit more complicated because as we were talking about earlier, this is happening in the midst of a brutal regulatory crackdown on the private internet sector. And what’s interesting about the crackdown is that, I think many have come to see it as this way to rein in the industry that has become so powerful that it can start to contest the power of the state. So in this framing, limiting the amount that tech companies can extract from their workers, makes a lot of sense. If the goal is to crush the industry, then limiting the access they have to their workers is certainly one way to do it. But still, I think it’s even more complicated than that. And that’s because I think we have to understand the tech crackdown, like we were talking about earlier in this broader national move for common prosperity.
So we talked a little bit about what common prosperity meant, this attitude towards tackling inequality in China. Concretely, I think that there are two relevant developmental goals that come out of the common prosperity goal, especially as they relate to 996. And so the first is to increase domestic consumption and shut the reliance that country has on traditional manufacturing, export-led growth. And the second is to mitigate the demographic problem of the declining birth rate. And so with these two goals in mind, I think the government’s stake in ending 996 starts to make some sense. 996 means that the industry offers fewer jobs with higher salaries, which if we’re trying to curb inequality, it’s a bad thing. 996 also doesn’t really incentivize workers to have babies. The idea is basically, once you have a kid, you can’t really spend all day, every day in the office anymore. You certainly can’t compete with the young tech workers for pulling off 996. And so in practice, 996 pushes workers to choose between having a kid or having a career. And so if we take all this into account, we can start to see why the government may come down on the 996 practice. But even still, I want to say that I’m not 100% convinced that this is the driving motivation for companies to enter practice. For one, some companies had actually announced that they were stopping the practice 996 before the government official made a statement to oppose it.
PM: It’s a good point. And if you think about if the government is committed to this kind of common prosperity approach, you wouldn’t want so many workers who are working extremely long hours could be getting paid extra, you might want you know, some more workers in there, all of them getting a bit of a lower salary, and working a few less hours so that they can spend more out in the economy, they can have more like leisure activities, and all those sorts of things. And as you say, develop more personal relationships so that they can have kids and start families and all these other sorts of things. So it certainly makes sense from that kind of approach. But then you also talk about how the companies themselves might actually have some degree of desirability to see the end of 996 as well — it might actually work for their practices. And you also discuss this concept of involution within the Chinese tech sector. So do you want to outline that kind of approach to seeing this challenge to 996?
JT: I think to understand what capital itself has to gain, we have to come back to the story of how the tech sector in China, specifically the consumer internet sector, has developed since this era of Phengkou. So as we’re talking about around 2019, we start to see growth slowing down. And this really is the entry point to this most recent period of monopoly platforms and overcrowded consumer markets. And this is certainly still the period that we’re living in today. There are a couple of demographic reasons that we can attribute to the stagnation. The first is simply in the number of Internet users, which has now passed the billion mark, and so it’s starting to slow dramatically in China. Mainly it’s that everyone who wants to be online, is already online. And the people who are left are the elderly are the super young. The second is that consumer spending in China is relatively low. So even with over a billion people online, there’s still a relatively limited amount of money that can be made from them. But in order to really understand how we get to this era of sort of monopoly domination, I think, we must look at the sort of self destructive logic of inter-capitalist competition itself. As I’m sure your audience will know, under free market capitalism, there is the tendency for natural monopolies to form. So Marx tells us this, that this tendency for monopolies to form arises precisely because firms benefit from economies of scale, and can thus undersell smaller competitors putting them out of business.
However, the formation of monopolies was not so much a tendency in the case of China’s internet sector, as it was built into the very blueprint of China’s venture backed model. So unlike traditional firms whose investors would typically expect returns as soon as the business begins operations, the entire investing strategy behind consumer internet companies relied on holding out on a profit in the short run with the bet that the platform will attain some kind of monopoly position, a winner take all position. And that’s why so many consumer internet companies spend the first few years completely unprofitable, focused instead on things like user acquisition, expanding their market, even if it meant operating at a loss. So aside from competing on standard things like platform usability and efficiency, internet platforms also subsidized cost to the users, in some cases to the extent of providing the core service for free in order to get them onto the platform. And so, the strategy here is really to accelerate the adoption of a service, literally by paying users to use the service, or to beat out the competition by buying them over. And this is essentially what happened in China’s consumer internet sector.
PM: You also see a lot of similarities to what happens in the US tech industry in that way as well. These seem to be more common things for tech sectors broadly in encouraging this degree of monopolization through the subsidization of the company’s ability to grow its user base, and all these sorts of things in order to achieve that dominant position.
JT: Exactly. And I think, given that especially in this era of intense growth, that so much venture capital funding was coming from the US, I’m certainly not surprised that there are so many similarities in this model. So now at this point, we add on the demographic disadvantage, as well as the fact that markets have become overcrowded. And these monopolies must at this point shift from building new features to expand their user base, to now extracting rents from users, while not really having to worry about providing any new additional value to them. And so there are already many examples of this happening. For example, the two Chinese food delivery platforms, Meituan and Ele.me. Together, they dominate the the food delivery market in China. They’re able to arbitrarily raise their commissions from vendors who have no choice but to stay on the platforms simply due to a lack of alternatives. Ecommerce companies are doing the same thing, locking in their users, and then hiking up the fees once they’re locked in. And so for tech work, I think the shift meant that the business model didn’t rely on new features or product improvements, the kind of thing that tech workers were responsible for developing with their monopoly position. It basically didn’t matter. And so the demands for this particular kind of work essentially lessened.
What’s really interesting about all of this is that despite these structural changes, tech workers continue to work long hours, and compete ruthlessly, but the basis of it has completely changed. So instead of competing against other firms for a larger share of the market, their main competition is now each other, their co workers. And that’s because as the firm begins to stagnate, there’s less to go around for each worker, meaning that they’re competing in a zero-sum game. So this change in tech work has brought about some really interesting things to the nature of tech work. So one term that has become really popular in tech circles, is “neijuan” or in English, involution. And this word is the way to describe how ferocious competition has become. But workers are careful to point out that involution is not just competition. There’s this clear understanding that some competition is positive and can breed higher productivity. Instead, involution is specifically the kind of competition where everyone ends up worse off. So actually, if we come back to the issue of 996, it actually makes for a really good example of involution. So let’s say as a worker, maybe in order to get a higher bonus, maybe you decide to stay a little later. So that you can appear a little bit more hardworking to your manager, and so that you can get a better shot of getting a bigger share of that bonus. But now, all your co-workers are starting to see you do this, and so they start to stay late too and now everyone has to stay late just to be competitive. And all of a sudden, there’s this new standard stay late, but the total compensation remains exactly the same. So this is one example of the involution of the working hours.
Another example is many companies have this practice of expecting their workers to write report updates, sometimes their monthly reports more frequently, their weekly reports, sometimes they’re even daily reports. And this whole process of writing reports has involuted as well. So one example that I found is that a worker may start by writing a report, just a few sentences to give their manager an update. But now your coworker is writing a whole page for their report. And in order to look like you’re not slacking off, you have to start writing a whole page. And before you know it, your entire team is writing a whole page. And at the end of the week, the manager has to read dozens of pages of report backs. And so it’s possible that they don’t even end up reading it at all. So this is another example of involution in the workplace.
Another interesting phenomenon that has emerged because of these structural changes is the emergence of “moyu,” or touching fish. And so this term basically means to slack off on the job and to basically to appear busy while actually doing something completely different. And what I found in my research is that “moyu” is not simply just like I’m slacking off for an hour. It’s sort of come to sort of embody this whole philosophy of not doing work in the workplace. And so if you look on Zhihu, one of the social media platforms in China, you’ll see that tech workers are sharing advice on how to moyu at work, they’re sort of giving each other sharing tools, like software tools to help you moyu. So one example that I love is that there’s this tool that you can install on your MacBook that allows you to read a novel on your touchbar, on your keyboard touchbar, so really the last place that a manager might be might be looking. That same tool also helps you install on various places on your IDE, a spot to read novels. It also has this fancy window management system, the idea is basically to let you do something completely different while looking like you’re coding. So the way they do that is they manage the transparency or the opacity of a window, so that you can literally be playing a computer game, while looking like you’re actually coding. So there are all kinds of fun tactics that has emerged from this term moyu.
PM: Geez, I thought I was good at the moyu when I used to work a nine to five job but these tech workers really haven’t mastered. I think that’s really fascinating to hear you describe the responses of the workers on the job and how, even though they have to work these long hours, they find these ways to do as little work as possible, effectively. I’m wondering why you think that the third aspect that you described, the approach to capital to these changes that are in the Chinese economy, is the best way to explain the changes to 996, or the challenge to 996, rather than the approach of the state or the actions of workers?
JT: I think the safest thing to say is that all three things have had some influence on these large tech companies choosing to cancel the 996 policy. The reason I come to the logic of capital itself is because it’s precisely this narrative of how the tech industry has transformed over the past decade from one of intense competition to one now of monopoly control. This structural explanation to me makes the most sense. I guess what I want to say is, I think it’s the logic of capital itself that is the most compelling reason for explaining this change. Because there are a couple of other things that are happening in the industry at the same time. So for one, cutting this change basically means that in many cases, they get to pay their workers are significantly less. And that’s because workers, as mandated by Chinese labor law, must be paid for overtime work. In fact, it’s two times the base for working on weekends and three times for working on national holidays. And so off the bat, it’s a huge cost saving for capital. And this lines up really well with another phenomenon that’s basically been happening since 2019, which is layoffs that are happening across the industry. And so that’s something that really became much more prevalent in recent years, to the extent of some of the largest companies right now laying off whole divisions of workers, having plans to cut to the extent of 20-30% of their workforce by a certain date.
PM: It’s really interesting to hear you describe that. And and I also think it’s interesting to think about how things are changing within the Chinese tech industry, as you describe it going from this period of competition to this kind of monopolized period where it’s moving more toward kind of rent extraction, rather than innovation and developing new products — cementing a dominance and finding new ways to pull revenue from existing subscribers, because the growth just isn’t there to the same degree anymore. I guess I have two questions to end our conversation. And first of all, you talked about how there’s this move to a 1065 instead of the 996, this different notion of how work should be structured, the hours that people should work, and how, I guess a lot of tech workers are worried that that isn’t actually going to be as significant of a change as they believe. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JT: The main change in policy that happened early 2021 was the cancellation of what is known as the big/small week. The idea that you alternate between five-day weeks and six-day weeks. But from seeing the responses to this cancellation online, what I found is that a lot of workers are quite skeptical that this reduced time in the office will actually improve things for them. So some workers are worried that canceling 996 won’t actually reduce the workloads or the metrics that they have to hit on their job. And so they’ll just be expected to bring this work home. Some don’t really see it changing the dynamic they have with their direct managers who can be the cause of a lot of workplace issues for them. Another major thing which I suggested earlier, is that canceling 996 will also result in pay cuts, since companies, at least in theory, have to pay workers for overtime work. Many tech workers, as I’ve seen in online forums, say that they would rather take money over the free time.
PM: You also talked about the layoffs that were going on in the Chinese tech industry. And the fact that I guess because of this involution, because of the way that the sector has changed, that there’s not really a need for as many workers as were there as growth slows, and as the structure of the sector evolves. You talked about this in your piece but there was also a piece in Rest of World recently about the Chinese tech industry that talked about how layoffs are escalating, how people who used to work in the tech industry are finding it difficult to find a new job. All of a sudden, it’s not as easy just to grab a tech job, they’re not in as high demand anymore, and how there are even people who were in the tech industry or thinking of going into the tech industry, who are now looking more toward other sectors within the Chinese economy that don’t pay as well, but also don’t have the same degree of expectations, but also people who are looking more toward civil service jobs within the government. Because even though they pay less, they’re dependable and the expectations are different. Can you talk about that change and do you think that that is something that is going to continue as we see this shift within the Chinese tech economy?
JT: I think that there is not much reason to believe that layoffs won’t continue, at least in the immediate future. This is, in part my opinion, because of the kind of crackdown that’s been happening. And really the fact that the growth opportunity in the Chinese tech sector has been somewhat exhausted. And so, a few months ago, especially during sort of the height of the lockdown and Shanghai and several other places in China, there was the sentiment that the Chinese government would sort of loosen up and sort of take a more collaborative approach with consumer internet companies. And if you look at sort of the stock market, they were sort of a bit of an upswing because of those conversations. But I think ultimately, the kind of crackdown that has happened over the past two years, has really made it quite difficult to go back. It is also meant that the kind of investor base for this sector has also been depleted. And so to come back to the question of do I think we will continue to see layoffs, I think it kind of boils down to this question of: Is the tech industry and China able to find new areas for growth? And at least as of now, I’m not sure that there is a ton of reason to believe so.
PM: I guess if the tech industry is going to grow any further, if there’s going to be demand for these kinds of jobs, then the Chinese tech companies need to do what the American tech companies have done and be much more internationally focused and trying to expand its services more and more internationally to have the kind of growth that it’s not going to get in China any longer as it kind of tops out on the number of people who are online and whatnot. JS, this has been a fascinating conversation to learn more about what’s been happening in the Chinese tech economy, what is driving this challenge to 996, the changes to the work culture. I really appreciate you taking the time and coming back on the show. Thanks so much!
JT: Thanks, Paris. It’s a pleasure.