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Tech Thursday: 911 on 996

Tech employees are organizing against a punitive work culture, pushing at the limits of online debate

As a coding platform for developers to collaborate on open-source software, GitHub didn’t seem controversial. The website is not even blocked in China.

However, it has been subject to DDOS attacks that have been traced back to China, as well as government requests to block certain content to IP addresses on the mainland. To keep the site accessible to China’s most creative programmers, GitHub has complied, provoking criticism from overseas users—while, paradoxically, allowing the site to host debates that push at limits of expression allowed on most mainland sites.

One recent organized online protest on GitHub opposed the newly infamous “996” work culture, shorthand for the expectation, mostly in China’s tech sector, that employees should be almost constantly on-call (9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week). Stories abound about the staff at internet start-ups sleeping in makeshift cots beside their desks, leading to broken relationships, nervous breakdowns and even premature deaths.

According to the 2018 Hurun Report—China’s answer to the Forbes rich lists—a new “unicorn,” or a startup with a valuation of more than 1 billion USD, is born in the country every three days. Employers can thus justify exploitative practices with the unspoken promise of a pot of gold at the end of the exhausting rainbow.

However, many major firms have actually begun dramatically downsizing, including Tencent, Alibaba, and JD. Tencent has announced that it will trim its senior and middle management by 10 percent. China’s Uber, Didi, plans to follow suit.

In November, JD was said to have laid off 10 to 15 percent of its workforce, with more chaotic cuts to come. The e-commerce giant among several companies specifically called out for its punitive (and possibly illegal) work culture on a GitHub post that laid out the issue in March.

Entitled “996.ICU,” the post cited Chinese labor laws to call for “an open source software license that protects workers’ rights and interests,” before they end up in the intensive care unit. It quickly became one of the site’s fastest-growing movements, as frazzled 996 workers signed a petition calling for change.

Organizing a campaign against exploitation by tech companies, however, will be an uphill battle. While the sweeping layoffs prove that loyalty and hard work offer no protection, they also encouraged an endless cycle of competition, as veteran employees fight for their jobs against companies with hordes of eager graduates waiting in the wings,

And even though developers on GitHub have been careful to frame their argument as a matter of rule of law, rather than political reform, any sign of an organized call for workers’ rights is enough to raise a red flag with domestic censors—especially coming amid wider economic anxieties in the tech sector. While one People’s Daily editorial expressed sympathy for employees caught in the 996 cycle, major Chinese browsers have begun blocking 996.ICU pages on GitHub, either at their own initiative or the behest of others. Whether it’s censoring discussion or exhorting employees to stay the course, it looks like China’s overworked tech staff won’t get to call it a day just yet.

Cover Image from 996.IC


Han Rubo is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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