Business | Clocked off 商業 | 下班了

China’s youth are rebelling against long hours

The backlash over a series of viral videos says a lot about shifting attitudes

A Huawei employee watches a program on his smartphone as he rests at his cubicle during lunch break.
Photograph: Getty Images 攝影:Getty Images
|Shanghai 2024 年 5 月 16 日,上海
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It is a time-honoured tradition for bosses to grumble about the supposed laziness of their underlings. Doing so publicly, however, is rarely wise. China offers no exception to this rule. Earlier this month Qu Jing, the head of communications at Baidu, a local tech giant, took to social media to defend the company’s gruelling culture. The resulting firestorm has highlighted the growing dissatisfaction among China’s young white-collar workers with the punishing hours common in the country.

In one video, which soon went viral, Ms Qu said it was not her responsibility whether her team’s relationships or health were affected by their jobs, declaring “I’m not their mother.” In another she added that a woman who opts to spend time with “her husband and kids” should not expect a promotion or raise. She claimed that she did not regret forgetting her elder son’s birthday nor which grade her younger son was in at school because she “chose to be a career woman”. “Keep your phone on 24 hours a day, always ready to respond,” was her advice to those lucky enough to find themselves in her line of work.
曲靜在一段很快就被廣為流傳的影片中說,她的團隊成員的感情生活或健康是否受到工作影響,不是她的責任,並宣稱「我又不是他們媽」。在另一段影片中,她還說,選擇花時間「陪丈夫和孩子」的女性不應該期待升遷或加薪。她聲稱自己不後悔忘記大兒子的生日,也不記得小兒子上幾年級,因為她「選擇成為事業女性」。她給那些有幸從事她這行業的人們的建議是:「24 小時開機,隨時待命。」

Condemnation came swiftly. On May 9th Ms Qu published an apology, promising to “improve the way I communicate” and “care more for my colleagues”. A day later she stepped down. Robin Li, Baidu’s chief executive, was forced to weigh in, remarking in a staff meeting that the comments did not reflect the company’s values. Many Chinese netizens disagreed.
譴責聲浪接踵而至。5 月 9 日,曲靜發布道歉聲明,承諾「改善我的溝通方式」並「更關心同事」。隔天,她就辭去了工作。百度執行長李彥宏被迫出面處理,他在員工會議上表示這些評論不代表公司的價值觀。許多中國網民表示不認同。

One noted that Ms Qu was merely “saying the quiet part out loud”. Such attitudes are widespread among leaders of the country’s tech giants. Not long ago a job at one of these firms was seen as the height of achievement for the country’s graduates. Landing a role at the likes of Baidu, Alibaba or Tencent meant prestige, a big salary, generous benefits and lucrative stock options. Even the notoriously gruelling hours did not deter applicants. Tech workers self-deprecatingly referred to themselves as “brick movers”, likening themselves to hard labourers, while boasting about the perks of their jobs.

Attitudes began to slowly change in 2019 after Jack Ma, a co-founder of Alibaba, celebrated the “blessing” of what he called the “996” work week—working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. That set off a wave of online griping. Before long workers began to speak of “007” shifts—24 hours a day, seven days a week.
2019 年,阿里巴巴聯合創始人馬雲稱讚工作時間為上午 9 點至晚上 9 點、每周工作 6 天的「996」工作制是「福氣」,自此態度開始慢慢改變。這在網上引發了一波抱怨。不久之後,員工開始談論「007」輪班——每天 24 小時,每周 7 天。

The deaths of a number of young Chinese tech workers stirred further controversy. In 2020 a 22-year-old worker at Pinduoduo, a Chinese e-commerce firm, died while travelling home from the office in the early hours of the morning. (Pinduoduo’s statement at the time did not comment on the cause of death.) In 2022 a 25-year-old content screener at Bilibili, a YouTube-like app, died while working through the Lunar New Year holiday. Later that month a 28-year-old engineer at ByteDance, the maker of TikTok and its Chinese sister-app, Douyin, died suddenly after exercising. Bilibili denied its employee had been working overtime in the week leading up to his death, but vowed to hire an additional 1,000 screeners. ByteDance did not comment on its worker’s hours. An internal survey of staff at the company soon after the incident showed that over 70% clocked off work after 9pm, with nearly 40% staying past 10pm.
多名年輕中國科技工作者的死亡引發了進一步的爭議。2020 年,一名 22 歲的拼多多員工在凌晨從辦公室回家途中去世。(拼多多當時發表的聲明未對死因發表評論。)2022 年,一名 25 歲的比心 App 內容審核員在農曆新年假期期間工作時去世。同月晚些時候,字節跳動的一名 28 歲工程師在鍛煉後突然去世,字節跳動是抖音及其中國姊妹 App「頭條」的開發商。比心否認其員工在去世前一周內曾加班,但承諾再僱用 1000 名審核員。字節跳動則未對該員工的工作時間發表評論。該公司員工在事件發生後不久進行的內部調查顯示,超過 70% 的員工在晚上 9 點後下班,近 40% 的員工在晚上 10 點後仍在工作。

More recently, a slowing economy has led many tech giants to cut costs. Perks have vanished while pay rises and promotions have been halted. Several companies have made sweeping layoffs. Employees with stock options in some companies have seen their value disappear. A regulatory crackdown by China’s government on some tech firms has not helped.

All this has eroded the appeal of working for China’s most dynamic companies. Nearly half of the country’s university graduates now aspire to work at state-owned enterprises, up from 36% in 2020, according to a survey by Zhaopin, a recruitment company. State firms have a reputation for being slow and stuffy. But they are also known as “iron rice bowls” that offer lifetime employment. Over half of the survey’s respondents cited stability as the most important factor when choosing a job. That is something the country’s tech giants are struggling to offer.
所有這些都削弱了為中國最具活力的公司工作的吸引力。據招聘公司智聯招聘的調查顯示,如今,近一半的大學畢業生希望在國有企業工作,而 2020 年這一比例為 36%。國有企業以慢速和墨守成規而聞名。但它們也被稱為提供終身僱傭的「鐵飯碗」。超過一半的受訪者將穩定性列為選擇工作時最重要的因素。而這正是該國科技巨頭難以提供的。

The extent to which the toxic culture of many of those firms bothers China’s central government is unclear. In 2021 the country’s top court declared that the “996” schedule was illegal. Ms Qu’s comments, however, suggest such hours are still expected of many tech workers. Her message also seems consistent with the thinking of Xi Jinping, China’s leader, who has called upon its youth to “eat bitterness”. Instead, a growing number of burned-out workers are “lying flat”, opting for apathy over ambition in their careers. In time, the cost of bosses like Ms Qu may grow clearer.
這些公司的有毒文化在中國中央政府眼中到底有多糟糕,尚不清楚。2021 年,該國最高人民法院宣布「996」工時制非法。然而,曲女士的評論表明,許多科技工作者仍被期待能做到這樣的工時。她的言論也似乎與中國領導人習近平的想法一致,他呼籲年輕人「自找苦吃」。相反,越來越多的身心俱疲的員工選擇「躺平」,在職業生涯中選擇了冷漠而非野心。隨著時間的推移,曲女士這樣的老闆們可能會付出的代價會越來越清楚。■

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