Chinese work ethic prioritizes hard work and diligence, and it has become an integral part of China’s worldwide success. Work culture in China has many unique aspects that differentiate it from other work cultures around the world. For example, while taking a nap during office hours would be frowned upon in Western companies, in China it is widely acceptable to take a 20-30 minutes nap after lunch before going back 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.
More unique aspects 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 right before their name. This form of formal addressing further points out the importance and respect that is put on one’s rank. Another respectful aspect of work culture in China is the tendency of using indirect communication. As such, It is preferable to rely less on words and be more attentive to expressions or tone of voice to understand one’s meaning, all in order to 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 working system that has become something of the ordinary in China. One of its biggest endorses, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, had written a lengthy post praising the 996 working system: “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 also many variations to this working hour system that demands working overtime. Variants 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).
This 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 1970s, where China essentially succeeded in opening its door to the west and eventually turned into the second-largest economy in the world in only a few decades. The overwhelming growth of the Chinese economy had created an essential work culture that intended to keep up the pace. Therefore, the 996 working hour culture had gradually developed, from one day of overtime a week to every day.
Furthermore, the rapid development of technology had required tech companies to hire much more employees then they possibly could, thus there was no other choice but to start adding overtime work for their existing employees all while searching for new hires. Lastly, the 996 working hour system helped keep the labour cost low after the meaningful increase in wages in recent years.
Reactions to 996
Many huge 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: “No one ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” He wrote in his Twitter account, implying that working long hours allows for one’s success and growth.
Jack Ma stresses that it was passion for his job that drove him to work tirelessly and achieve his enormous success, thus claiming that: “If you don’t like it, every minute [of work] is torture.” And 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, founder of JD.com, cuts right to the chase with his own opinion on that matter, referring to people who complain about the long work schedule as simply “slackers.”
Along with these controversial social media posts, those who oppose the 996 working culture created a website called ‘996.icu’ as well as launched a repository on GitHub- one that gained a lot of attention and support, quickly becoming the second most starred repository on GitHub.
The anti-996 website pointes out how this work culture was prone to risk one’s health, both in body and mind, and how working this much overtime hours was against Chinese labor laws. In an article published in the People’s Daily’s newspaper, it had been made clear that not everyone sees eye to eye with China’s top CEOs: “Advocating 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.”
As of yesterday (Aug. 26), The Supreme People’s Court and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security had 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. In other words, 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 this demanding trend, and China’s working culture will eventually change with it.
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 is more of the same- working overtime became a part of the working environment, something that they grew 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 far from easy.
After finally obtaining said job, many strive to get promotion and receive a much higher salary, thus they stay in the office for longer hours to gain their boss’s approval. 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 ends up becoming an unchangeable corporate culture.
With all of its negative traits, it is hard to ignore how the 996 work culture helped China in its competition with 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, more so than their foreign rivals. That being the case, it is recommended to find Chinese partners or employees to help you achieve your business development goal.
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