Chinese work ethic prioritizes hard work and diligence and it has become an integral part of China’s worldwide success. The work culture in China has many unique aspects that differentiate it from work cultures around the world. For example, while taking a nap during office hours would be frowned upon by Western companies, in China it is widely acceptable to take a 20-30 minutes nap after lunch before returning to work.
Work culture in China also values collectivism and establishing good relationships (Guanxi) within the workplace. It is common for coworkers to spend time together after work, all in order to build a good working relationship. Another unique aspect of China’s work and business culture is the importance of titles. In a formal setting, it is required to address someone by their designated work title such as ‘manager’, ‘director’, ‘principle’, etc before their name. This type of formal addressing further highlights the importance and respect that is put on one’s rank. Work culture in China also has a tendency of using indirect communication.
As such, it is preferable to rely less on words and be more attentive to expressions or the tone of one’s voice to understand the meaning. Doing so will help maintain harmonious relations.
In order to fully understand China’s work culture and ethics, it is vital to be familiar with the term ‘996’, a In order to fully understand China’s work culture and ethics, it is vital to be familiar with the term ‘996’, a working system that has become standard in China. One of its biggest endorses, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, has written a lengthy post praising the ‘996’ working system, stating “I personally think that ‘996’ is a huge blessing…how do you achieve the success you want without paying extra effort and time?”
Introduction to Chinese Business Culture – ‘996’
The ‘996’ working hour system (‘996’ 工作制) refers to the requirement for employees to work from 9AM to 9PM, 6 days per week, hence reaching a total of 72 hours per week of work. There are many other variations to this working hour system that demand working overtime, such as ‘8106’ (8AM-10PM, 6 days per week), ‘997’ (9AM-9PM, 7 days per week), or even as strict as ‘007’ (working online 24 hours a day, 7 days per week). The ‘007’ work schedule is mostly enforced by large internet companies and tech startups, where their employees are required to keep up with the competition of rapidly developing technology and thus work for longer hours.
Analyzing ‘996’ as a Business Culture
China’s economic reform began in the late 1970’s, when China succeeded in opening its door to the West and consequently turned into the second-largest economy in the world, in only a few decades. The overwhelming growth of the Chinese economy created a working system that intended to keep up the pace. Therefore, the ‘996’ working hour culture gradually developed, from one day of overtime a week to every day. Furthermore, the rapid development of technology required tech companies to hire considerably more employees than what was possible. Thus, there was no other choice but to start adding overtime work for their already existing employees, all while searching for new hires. In essence, the ‘996’ working hour system helped the labor cost remain low after the meaningful increase of wages in recent years.
Reactions to ‘996’
Many large IT companies in China adopt ‘996’ as their working policy, as encouraged by leading entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma of Alibaba, Robin Li of Baidu, Richard Liu of JD.com, and many others. Even Tesla co-founder, Elon Musk, seems to support China’s busy work system, stating on his Twitter account that “no one ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” This implies that working long hours allows for one’s success and growth.
Jack Ma stresses that it was a passion for his job that drove him to work tirelessly and achieve his enormous success, claiming that “if you don’t like it, every minute [of work] is torture.” He continued by saying that the ‘996’ working hour system can only truly work when one is dedicated completely to his work: “If we find things we like, ‘996’ is not a problem.” Even with those statements in mind, the founder of Alibaba still views overtime work as essential for a company’s accomplishment: “If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why even bother joining?” he writes in Weibo, “we don’t lack those who work eight hours comfortably.” Richard Liu, the founder of JD.com, cuts right to the chase with his own opinion on the matter, referring to people who complain about the long work schedule as “slackers.”
Along with controversial social media posts, those who oppose the ‘996’ working culture created a website called ‘996.icu’. They have also launched a repository on GitHub, which gained a lot of attention and support; it quickly became the second most starred repository on GitHub. The anti-996 website discusses how the ‘966’ work culture enhanced risk to one’s health, both in body and mind, and how working that many overtime hours was actually against Chinese labor laws. In an article published in the People’s Daily newspaper, it had been made clear that not everyone sees eye-to-eye with China’s top CEOs, “advocating for hard work and commitment does not mean forcing overtime. The mandatory enforcement of ‘996’ overtime culture not only reflects the arrogance of business managers, but also is unfair and impractical.”
‘996’ in China and How it Affects the Business
Despite the dispute regarding the ‘966’ work culture, the reality for many Chinese employees working in big IT companies remains the same; working overtime became such an integral part of the working environment so it became something that they are accustomed to. The reason for that lies in the fact that many Chinese people have the responsibility for providing for their family, parents included, and finding a job in such a competitive market is not easy. After finally obtaining a job, many strive to receive a promotion and obtain a higher salary. Thus, they stay in the office for longer hours to gain their boss’s approval and respect. That behavior influences other work colleagues to act the same, until working overtime turns into an unspoken rule, one that was formed by the employees themselves due to the rising competition. The higher-ups understand this phenomenon and encourage their employees to work overtime, to the point where it results in an unchangeable corporate culture.
However, as of August 26, 2021, the Supreme People’s Court and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security jointly issued a memo outlining 10 cases in which employees were forced to work long hours and were physically and mentally harmed as a result. In those cases of overtime dispute, the court had stressed the illegality of the ‘996’ work culture in tech companies and how it represents a severe violation of the law. For example, in one case, a delivery worker who refused to work overtime and was therefore fired from his job had received compensation of 8,000 yuan ($1,233) after the court had ruled in his favor. This memo demonstrates how the Chinese authorities disapprove of the ‘996’ work culture and would not support this ongoing work mentality. Perhaps this Supreme Court intervention will put a stop to the demanding work trend, and China’s working culture will eventually change with it.
However, regardless of its negative traits, it is hard to ignore how the ‘996’ work culture helped China in its competition against the West. Western clients who seek to develop their business in a quick, hardworking environment would benefit greatly from China’s on-demand market. Chinese firms are responsive 24/7 and they are very efficient and task-oriented. Thus, it is recommended to find Chinese partners or employees to help you achieve your business development goal.
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