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Emotional Labor

Psychological manipulation remains underreported in Chinese workplaces

I asked myself, ‘Am I an employer who has engaged in workplace PUA?’ I am, and I apologize to everyone who has worked with me,” wrote entertainment CEO Xu Mingchao on Weibo, “except Yamy.”

In July, Xu’s company, JC Universe Entertainment, came under fire after rapper Yamy shared a three-minute audio clip of Xu going on a tirade against her in a meeting where she was not present. In a lengthy Weibo post, Yamy detailed two years of emotional abuse by her boss, from criticism about her appearance to threats to put her on an industry-wide blacklist.

The viral post, as well as Xu’s lack of remorse, has incited public concern over so-called “workplace PUA.” Employees have taken to Weibo to share bleak stories about employers making them cry, assigning unpaid overtime, making personal remarks, and interfering in their private lives.

PUA, short for “pickup artist,” originally described a form of psychological abuse in seduction or intimate relationships, where the abuser tries to control the victim by toying with their emotions and breaking down their confidence.

In the workplace, similar behaviors can take place in relationships of power disparity, such as between bosses and their subordinates, according to Xiong Xinfa, a career consultant with 500,000 followers on Weibo. Victims are manipulated to be unable to assert themselves, and ultimately obey the abuser. “I used to believe that if there was some problem, it must be my fault. It was me who didn’t perform well enough,” Yamy wrote.

Prior to Yamy coming forward, psychological problems in the workplace were rarely discussed in public, though Xiong believes that some commentators wrongly conflate a wide range of workplace conflicts with PUA. In a June survey by recruitment company Zhilian, over 63 percent of 8,062 white-collar workers said they experienced “workplace PUA,” mostly in the service sector.

According to Zhilian, common manipulation tactics in the workplace include verbal denial of abuse, illusory promises of rewards, and the encouragement of admiration for the employer. “I have worked overtime for three months without any extra pay, since my boss told me I was about to get promotion as a senior engineer, but I haven’t gotten anything yet,” Chen Ying, a test engineer at a Shanghai financial company, tells TWOC. “I want to leave, but I’m afraid of missing my chance.”

Though workplace PUA isn’t unique to China, Xiong believes a Confucian emphasis on group “loyalty” can foster such behavior. “Employee loyalty isn’t a bad thing in itself,” he tells TWOC. “Many companies will have employees sing songs or chant slogans to rally their spirits…but employees must be allowed to refuse to participate in things that make them uncomfortable or that violate their basic rights, without retaliation.”

For employees who face “workplace PUA,” Xiong recommends leaving the workplace as soon as possible, contacting lawyers or judicial organs for legal assistance, and understanding that their experience was not normal. Under China’s Labor Law, employees can seek damages from employers for shaming and physical punishment.

In the long run, however, laws still have yet to outline clear safeguards for workers’ mental health. “Protecting employees’ rights is a gradual process. Only when you’ve safeguarded the right to have a job, get paid, get holidays, have a safe working environment…can there be attention on mental health,” says Xiong.

“When most people are still worried about escaping poverty and putting food on the table, they don’t prioritize mental health.”

Emotional Labor is a story from our issue, “Disaster Warning.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.


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