Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba group, gestures during a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 23, 2019.

Markus Schreiber/The Associated Press

Cheng Zheng has few illusions about the punishing schedule he expects some of his employees to keep: a 72-hour workweek that has become the subject of a rising outcry in China.

Yes, workers struggle to stay awake and focus after too many hours in the office, eroding their productivity. Yes, the rigours of a 996 schedule – so-called because it involves being at the office from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week – has led people to quit jobs in the country’s furiously competitive tech industry. Yes, 996 could be considered exploitative. And yes, many people think it’s downright illegal, a contravention of China’s worker-friendly laws that generally place a 44-hour limit on weekly hours, save for companies that obtain special permission or pay overtime, which many tech firms do not.

“But to be honest, most companies that oppose 996 are now bankrupt,” said Mr. Cheng, the founder of DDD.Online, a Chinese augmented reality company. “Given the big pressure on startups in China, and the competition we face, we have no choice but to squeeze out more work and raise output.”

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Mr. Cheng is in illustrious company. Some of the best-known names in China’s high-tech sector have adopted the 996 work-week – and now they’re defending it, amidst a growing online protest by tech workers.

Late last week, China’s best-known billionaire, Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma, told employees “being able to do 996 is a huge blessing,” in a rejoinder then shared publicly by the company. “If you don’t work harder and spend more time than others, how can you achieve the success you want?”

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He added: “If you don’t pay the price, you can’t have a return.”

Another of the country’s billionaire tech stars, JD.com founder Richard Liu, last week publicly disparaged the malingerers whose numbers, he said, have grown on his company’s roster. “If this carries on, JD will have no hope. And the company will only be heartlessly kicked out of the market. Slackers are not my brothers,” he said.

It all amounts to an unapologetic repudiation of tech workers who have gathered on GitHub, the Microsoft-owned online code repository, to lament the lengthy hours in the industry, particularly as tech layoffs intensify competition for high-paying jobs.

Many of the stories of overwork have accumulated under the label “996.ICU,” a joke that such a schedule can result in hospitalization. Workers have gathered a whitelist of companies that espouse a work-life balance, but have also built up a “996.Leave” page that compiles information on overseas working conditions for those who want out, in addition to documenting health concerns and telling stories of personal difficulties.

The debate over long work hours in tech is not unique to China. In Silicon Valley, the 80-hour work-week is alternately described as innate to success – and inhuman. Critics sometimes cite a 2014 study by Stanford economist John Pencavel that relied on data from First World War munitions makers to determine that there is little difference in a person’s output beyond 56 hours a week.

But modern office jobs are far removed from century-ago factories, and Chinese executives say they have ample reason to demand long hours.

Gao Song launched Seblong Technology, an app development firm, in 2015, and saw such immediate success that he figured he could loosen the reins. “I decided to slow down and give people more time to rest,” he said. But soon after, “I noticed that morale began to worsen and people no longer paid attention to their work. So instead of making things more efficient, we actually risked losing everything.”

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In 2018, Mr. Gao placed managers on the 996 schedule. Profit soared. “996 cannot by itself solve the problem of worker efficiency. But it does give employees more time to think about their jobs,” he said.

Seblong’s Snail Sleep app is currently among the top 20 free apps for iPhone in China, according to App Annie data. And the app has given Mr. Gao a unique window into the demands of modern life in his country. In examining 238 million sleep reports last year, Mr. Gao said, he discovered that “Chinese people are the hardest-working people on Earth. We sleep even less than the Japanese.”

The demanding schedule has deep roots. China only adopted a two-day weekend in 1995 and “996 is like going back to old habits. It’s not a new creature,” Mr. Gao said.

In the tech industry, the long hours are often linked to Huawei, whose famous “wolf” culture – bloodthirsty, tireless – is commonly credited as the corporate inspiration for 996 schedules elsewhere, particularly since many see Huawei as China’s foremost international success.

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Even critics see a link between lengthy hours and that company’s ascendancy. ”Huawei is famous for this, and it is a very big advantage over Western competitors like Ericsson,” said Jude Zhu, the founder of Greenstone Consulting, which coaches early-stage companies in China.

But, he said, “we are working longer and longer. And people’s health is worsening. Family relationships are being put in jeopardy.” Tech workers exchange stories of colleagues who died from apparent overwork.

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In that light, Mr. Ma’s embrace of 996 sounded unsympathetic. “You should at least let your employees know that you care about their health,” Mr. Zhu said.

Chinese forums, too, are filled with anonymous accounts from workers who belie the idea that more hours mean more work. Instead, they document time spent browsing social media, deliberating over takeout orders and napping.

Yet the corporate embrace of a morning-to-night schedule comes as little surprise to Dogson Zhuge, one of the people behind 996.ICU. He couches his criticism in Marxist terms, referring to tech bosses as “capitalists.”

“In the history of Western countries, there was also once a time when entrepreneurs exploited workers like crazy,” he said.

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Now, he and a handful of others have embarked upon a project to push for change in China. They plan to start with an information gathering campaign, in the hopes that naming companies can shame them into amending their practices. They also intend to prepare proposals for the country’s legislators to consider next year.

The employers, however, aren’t concerned. For Mr. Cheng, the tradeoff to 996 hours is a substantial salary: His workers can earn $60,000 a year, with the expectation that they will put in the hours required. “Money is still the top issue most people care about. So I see it as something reasonable,” he said.

Mr. Zhuge, meanwhile, continues to toil at his own 996 job, with no immediate prospect of relief.

“I feel that our boss is not normal, like he feels as if he will lose a lot of money if he lets us go home before 9 p.m. So we have to work overtime.”

With a report from Alexandra Li



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