China’s richest internet moguls think their employees should work more.
Jack Ma, a founder of the e-commerce titan Alibaba, called long work hours “a huge blessing.” Richard Liu, who runs the Alibaba rival JD.com, said people who frittered away their days “are no brothers of mine.”
Rank-and-file tech workers in China, discouraged by a weakened job market and downbeat about their odds of joining the digital aristocracy, have other ideas.
They are organizing online against what in China is called the “996” culture: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
For years, Chinese tech employees have worked hours that make Silicon Valley’s workaholics seem pampered. Now they are naming and shaming employers that demand late nights. Some programmers are even withholding their creations from companies that they think overemphasize 996.
“Ten years ago, people rarely complained about 996,” said Li Shun, a former employee at the search giant Baidu who left to found an online medical start-up. “This industry was booming once, but it’s more of a normal industry now. There are no more giant financial returns. Expecting people to work a 996 schedule on their own like before isn’t realistic.”
Unusually for China — where independent labor unions are banned and the government comes down hard on populist movements it doesn’t control — the movement is gaining traction.
Mr. Ma softened his remarks. An industrywide conversation has begun. An open letter, sent on Monday to China’s Ministry of Human Resources and signed by 74 lawyers from around the country, urges the government to properly enforce labor laws.
Even Chinese state media has called on employers to ease back.
“Under the pressures of a slowing economy, many companies are faced with questions about their survival, and their anxiety is understandable,” a commentary in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, said. “But the solution is not to make employees work as much overtime as possible.”
Angst about 72-hour workweeks speaks to a deeper gloom in China’s digital industries.
Not so long ago, 996 symbolized possibility for Chinese tech entrepreneurs. Their country had the vast market. And increasingly, it had the engineering talent. The secret ingredient, the one that supposedly set China’s companies apart from Silicon Valley’s, was the hustle.
While China requires overtime pay, the laws are haphazardly enforced, and the tech industry usually insists workers are committing their time voluntarily.
But hustle is harder to demand of workers in a bear market. Internet darlings have laid off employees. A torrent of venture investment in tech has slowed to a trickle. As China’s internet industry matures, giant companies like Alibaba and Tencent are looking more like monopolists whose world-swallowing dominance leaves little room for upstarts.
In China, “there’s not a lot of hope for runners-up anymore,” said Max Zhou, a co-founder of a Beijing mobile software start-up called MetaApp. As a result, he said, smaller companies can no longer use a sense of grander purpose to motivate workers to sacrifice their personal lives.
“Most companies don’t have a dream anymore,” Mr. Zhou said. “They can only try to fabricate something for their employees.”
The 996 debate started last month with a simple post on GitHub, an online community where programmers around the world share code and software tools. An anonymous user posted under the screen name “996icu,” a reference to the place where such hours take engineers: the intensive care unit.
The 996.ICU GitHub repository — basically a folder for a project’s files — has since been “starred” more than 230,000 times, indicating people’s level of interest. Hundreds of fed-up tech workers have contributed to the GitHub project. Others have assembled on messaging and social media apps, with little centralized coordination.
The Chinese government is eternally fearful of spaces where mass discontent can simmer. It has long barred access to Facebook, Twitter and other global platforms. Years ago, China briefly blocked GitHub, too, but engineers protested and the site was unblocked. GitHub, which is owned by Microsoft, has a policy of posting any takedown requests it receives from governments.
Nagi Zhuge, an engineer at a start-up in the southern province of Hunan, has lived the 996 life for the last two years.
“My colleagues are too afraid to go home after work,” Mr. Zhuge said. “As a junior employee, I can’t be the first to leave.” He is now an active contributor to the GitHub project.
Across the different groups, the basic strategy is to push, but not so hard that the Chinese government feels compelled to react.
That means no strikes and no demonstrations. In one group on the messaging app Telegram, references to Marx and Lenin are forbidden. The philosophies of communism’s leading lights often run contrary to the way China is run today. The government cracked down against a labor rights movement in the tech hub of Shenzhen this year.
Instead of sit-ins, the tech workers are harnessing the power of memes, stickers and T-shirts. Some have pushed for a holiday to celebrate beleaguered software engineers. Mr. Zhuge is rallying workers to mail paper copies of China’s labor law to Mr. Ma of Alibaba.
“We’re expressing ourselves very gently, as programmers tend to do,” said Suji Yan, the founder of a start-up in Shanghai called Dimension.
Even so, many people, in China and elsewhere, remain concerned that the movement will be silenced. A few weeks ago, some Chinese web browsers appeared to have restricted access to the GitHub repository. In response, Microsoft employees started a petition asking the company to decline any requests from the Chinese authorities to censor or remove the 996.ICU repository.
“Most important for the 996.ICU movement is that GitHub is accessible in China,” the employees wrote in their petition. “We encourage Microsoft and GitHub to keep the 996.ICU GitHub repository uncensored and available to everyone.” The petition, which is also hosted on GitHub, has collected more than 150 public signatures and has been starred more than 4,000 times.
Concerns about censorship also arose when Twitter users in the United States were blocked from posting links to the 996.ICU repository. The link was incorrectly flagged by Twitter’s spam prevention system, a Twitter spokeswoman said, but users are now able to post it.
On GitHub, Chinese tech workers have drawn up a blacklist of the tech companies where the hours are longest. Among the offenders: Alibaba, JD.com, the smartphone maker Huawei and Bytedance, the social media giant behind the short-video platform TikTok.
Written along the bottom of the 996.ICU group’s bright red home page: “Developers’ lives matter.”
Alibaba said it had no comment on 996 beyond Mr. Ma’s social media posts, and JD.com had no comment beyond Mr. Liu’s post. Huawei, whose executives speak proudly of their hard-charging “wolf culture,” declined to comment. Bytedance did not respond to a request for comment.
The last item on the list: “Go home at 6 p.m. without feeling sorry.”
Kate Conger contributed reporting.