Wednesday, September 22, 2021

12-hour days, six days a week

To understand the work culture in China, start with one number: 996.

It’s shorthand for the grueling schedule that has become the norm at many Chinese firms: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week.

The term originated in the technology sector about five years ago, when the nation’s nascent Internet companies were racing to compete with Silicon Valley. At first, workers were drawn to their free time for overtime pay and a promise to help China match the West.

China’s economy has become the second largest economy in the world. Tech giants like Alibaba, Huawei and ByteDance, which owns TikTok, are household names. But lately, more tech workers are resisting the culture at all costs.

Some in China’s working class dismiss the grievances as the grip of the elite; After all, technical workers are highly paid and educated. But the debate provides a window into the country’s economy more broadly, and the expectations of its young people.

The first big push to 996 came in 2019, as China’s economic growth slowed and tech workers began to question their working conditions. Online protests followed, but the movement faded under government censorship.

This year, 996 e-commerce giant Pinduoduo hit the headlines again after two workers died. Officials promised to investigate working conditions, though it’s not clear what – if anything – has come of it.

Since then, some companies have taken steps to improve work-life balance. In July Kuaishou, a short-video app, ended a policy requiring its employees to work on weekends twice a month. A Tencent department began encouraging workers to go home at 6 p.m. — though only on Wednesdays.

The pushback of 996 also reflects the hopes and concerns of China’s youth.

Because of the competitiveness of the job market, many people are willing to endure the working conditions. The number of college graduates in China has increased by 73 percent over the past decade, an astonishing achievement for a country that had fewer than 3.5 million university students in 1997. As a result, more people are competing for the limited pool of white-collar jobs. , as I wrote earlier this year.

But it is also clear that many rats are ill with race. Some Gen Xers have begun to read Mao Zedong’s writings on communism against capitalist exploitation. This year an online craze called out youth for “tengping” or “lying flat”—essentially, to freak out, as my colleague Elsie Chen wrote.

The Chinese Communist Party sees burnout and a threat to economic development. On the one hand, it has promised to better support college graduates in their job search. But it has also censored discussions of tagging.

What began as a conversation about tech companies’ treatment of elite workers has expanded to include low-skilled workers, especially gig workers.

Middle-class Chinese people have increasingly shown solidarity with those workers. Last year, when package couriers went on strike ahead of a major shopping holiday, many on social media cheered them on.

In some ways, the new awareness reflects a backlash against tech companies in the US, but it has also run against specific Chinese issues of censorship. Like college graduates, the government has promised more protections for gig workers. But earlier this year, Authorities arrested well-known delivery worker who tried to organize his fellow workers.

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Vivian Wang is the China correspondent for the Times.

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This May, the French government introduced an app that gave 300 euros — about $350 — to every 18-year-old in the country. The goal was to guide teens toward more highbrow art by using the money for cultural items – things like books, theater tickets, museum passes, records and art supplies.

By now, many teens in France flock to manga, a type of Japanese comic book, reports Aurelian Breeden in The Times. Books represent more than 75 percent of all purchases made through an app called Culture Pass, and about two-thirds of the books were manga.

Professor Jean-Michel Tobellum, who specializes in the economics of culture, said the trend towards mass media is not necessarily a bad thing. “You can enter Korean culture through K-pop and then discover that there is an entire cinema, a literature, painters and musicians that go along with it.”

Still, Tobellum said, the app gives young people “some incentive to engage with works that are more demanding on an artistic level.”

Gabriel Tin, a student in Paris who has spent over 200 euros on his pass at a local record store, is a fan of the initiative. “I wouldn’t ask to attend a jazz concert or anything like that,” he said. “The interesting thing is that each person can do with it what he wants.” — Sanam Yaar, Morning Writer

12-hour days, six days a week
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