'Obedience and fear’: the brutal working conditions behind China’s tech boom | Blog | Curio
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'Obedience and fear’: the brutal working conditions behind China’s tech boom

Jun 22, 2021

China’s tech industry has seen unprecedented growth in the past few years, but at what cost? 

In a fascinating piece for the Financial Times, the Deputy Beijing Bureau Chief, Yuan Yang, discusses the impact of controversial working conditions.

Whilst we break down the points below, you can also find Curio’s intelligent audio version here.


Young workers have had enough of the endlessly competitive nature of the industry. Awareness of their treatment is finally starting to be raised after the deaths of two workers from Pinduoduo: the six-year-old company that claims to be China’s “biggest online marketplace for agricultural products”.

The trillion-dollar tech companies of China have been likened to fortified cities — “when you’re outside you want to get in, but when you’re inside, you want to get out”.

They are the pillars that helped to reshape China’s image, but as far as younger workers are concerned, they symbolise a bygone era.

The American Influence

Executives at companies like Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance frequently cite figures like Jeff Bezos and Jack Welch as inspiration. Many of the actions Chinese companies have taken also seem to have a distinctly American influence. 

Alibaba fashioned a shrine out of Jack Ma’s old apartment in a similar way to how HP bought and refurbished the garage space in Palo Alto, California, where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started their business.

Even workers referring to themselves as “Code Peasants” sounds a lot like Silicon Valley workers referring to themselves as “Code Monkeys”.

Where the student becomes the master

The main difference between American tech giants like Apple and Google and their equivalents in China is speed and scale.

The growth that Google saw in half a decade in the doubling of its workforce, takes companies like Alibaba 12 months.

Globally-known investor, Kai-Fu Lee describes China’s tech companies as having a “lean startup approach” and credits this as the reason why they never go out of fashion (or business, for that matter). He says that their willingness to change in response to the market instead of imposing their views is key to their eternal relevancy. The drive to continue rapidly evolving is incredibly important. 

A notable example of this is Meituan, which started out as a “Groupon for China”, is now “delivering groceries, takeaway and medication”.

Nei Juan — “Involution”

Involution is a term coined by Clifford Geertz to describe the increasing amounts of labour entering an industry and output staying the same.

In China, this took on meaning thanks to the work of Cao Fengze, a PhD student who believes that involution can be equated to intense resource competition that continually grips the country. All that’s happening is people are “working harder and harder without gain”.

One employee in Yang’s article believes that involution is the reason why it’s difficult to climb the ladder and join the people who seem to do the innovative work. Competition is fierce and Masters graduates are employed to do the work that a high-school student could.

Off to the races

Many companies run so-called “horse races” for special projects or product releases. Several teams within the company work towards the same goal and a winner is chosen at the end: either by the company themselves or by the market response to the competing products when they are released to the public. One example was Tencent’s all-in-one messaging and payments app, WeChat. “Hothousing” or “closed-door projects” are another way that companies push their employees to produce the most innovative products. ByteDance is known to have a dozen or so employees get together in a single room, working around the clock, for a month! Don’t worry though, they stress that breaks and meals are provided.

Alibaba sends its workers to Jack Ma’s old apartment to do their work. They live and work in these apartments, scarcely leaving for months on end.

But, this sort of creative work is experienced by only a few.

According to the social anthropologist Xiang Biao, “The growth of China’s tech giants has not come from true innovation but from labour intensity…”

The innate terror of the ranking system

When new workers join new companies like Alibaba, they are often told that they will be ranked. At Alibaba in particular, this means that any so-called “losers” — the lowest-ranked workers of the year — will not receive a bonus.

For Xiang Biao, the forced rankings are a way for companies to exercise control. It simultaneously “destroys all solidarity between peers” and “generates obedience and fear towards the person above.”

The clash of the generations

When speaking to a couple who have worked for Ant Group and Alibaba for over a decade, Yang found that they had a dismissive attitude towards upcoming tech workers. They argue that new employees are unwilling to embody the company culture, and "they’re not as willing to suffer as we were”.

They also argue that younger workers feel as though they missed out on the opportunity for “economic freedom”, and that their attitude can make them difficult to manage.

Where they describe the company’s values as, “doing things of value to others while also developing yourself”, a graduate employee describes them as “chicken soup”. Meaning they’re a phrase said to placate and soothe employees. In fact, the relationship between managers and employees has been described as dishonest and abusive in some cases, thanks to the over-promising of opportunities to progress.

The move to government

Peking University announced in 2019 that 17% of its graduates went into work with the China Communist Party, which was a 6% increase from the previous year. 

Generally, a quarter of its graduates had gone into state-owned enterprises and institutions whilst the number of workers entering the private sector halved. 

One worker cites health needs as her reason for making the change. Others reason that whilst employees may have a hand in building these tech behemoths, most will never see the rewards. 

So what — if anything — is being done?

The 996.ICU campaign was started in 2019 to raise awareness surrounding the working conditions of many workers. The colloquial name refers to the fact that workers are often expected to  work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. Or, 72 hours a week. As of mid-2021, it has managed to source complaints from employees at over 200 companies.

Socialist labour law reforms have borne little fruit in terms of resulting in measurable change. This is largely due to the fact that the government is all too eager to make concessions for the companies on which it relies for income from taxes and wider economic growth.

However, the Chinese media leaked communications from Alibaba’s Chief People Officer Tong Wenhong. Tong discussed the concerns of employees and announced that the rankings system would be relaxed. 

To employees’ surprise, this promise was kept. There were no more “losers”, and everyone received a bonus. More junior employees also had the opportunity to receive equity shares. 

Whilst this is certainly fairer, it is all too clear that China’s private sector still has a long way to meet these new found demands.