In mid-April, Jack Ma – founder of Alibaba – praised the 996 system. 996 means working 9am till 9pm, 6 days a week. In Shenzhen, China’s tech boomtown near Hong Kong and Alibaba’s home, that’s normal.
I was in Shenzhen in January. I spoke to a successful innovator in the tech industry. Like many in this city, he’s an incomer from the Chinese interior. He spoke to me about the reality of the working culture in Shenzhen.
“We sacrifice our youth and our health”
He told me he was exhausted. He almost never took a holiday and could count the days he hadn’t been to work that year on one hand. “We sacrifice our youth and our health to get a certain comfort,” he explained, before adding: “Collectively, we have made China stronger.”
He reached for President Xi Jinping’s little red book and insisted that all that hard work was for a greater good than simply his own. It echoes Jack Ma’s observation about the ‘996 system’ being a “blessing” without which China would “very likely lose vitality and impetus”.
Oliver Twist or what?
It feels reminiscent of Victorian Britain, where such a work culture was for the betterment not only of the individual, but the British Empire. It’s also perhaps the root of the American commitment to a work culture that permits only two weeks’ holiday a year.
“The number of slackers has rapidly grown”
Richard Liu of ecommerce company JD.com concurs. He believes Chinese growth has enlarged the pool of slackers, and that the market will punish Chinese firms. The trouble is, China wants to become a leader in innovation and ideas. These are things people create when they pause, think and perhaps live a little.
Industrialisation requires drone workers. But at some stage in the process of no longer being poor, hungry and sick, people are wont to ask: what’s the point?
As answers go, ‘To make your country more powerful’ just doesn’t get most people up in the morning.
996? Make them work 24/7 if you want, but there’s a ceiling on what you’ll get out of them until you start offering more human answers.
Never mind work, what’s school good for?