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996, the defacto work schedule at many Chinese tech companies, is both fueling China's tech space and making its employees feel burned out.
The opportunities in China tech are huge; the drive to succeed, immense. No wonder the phenomenon of 996 — the work schedule of 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week at many Chinese tech companies — has made a name for itself in the West. Silicon Valley leaders in tech, like Sequoia Capital venture capitalist Mike Moritz, have praised it. Others are calling it a disastrous recipe for burnout. What is 996 really?
Let's say you work at Bytedance, the world's most valuable startup and owner of short-video app TikTok, where most of its 6,000 employees work a 6-day work week every two weeks. You feel the excitement of working at a well-funded rocket ship that's going to the moon. Silicon Valley preaches about making the world a better place. In China, what's more tangible is a heavy sense of optimism around you within the country's tech circles. Society-altering technologies like AI and automation aren't handled with kid gloves and come with less debate; instead, they hold the answers to the country's problems and tech companies should be working around the clock to reach those solutions.
That portrait may paint the spirit of 996, but the reality is less idealistic. On the other hand, many of China's tech employees work overtime, sometimes without overtime pay, and feel they have no time for sleep or sex at the end of the day. The typical 2-hour long commute to Beijing's farther-off technology parks, which house the headquarters of tech giants like Tencent and Baidu, can make some feel like they're exiled from Beijing. There are no Google nap pods here — instead, interns can crash on some bunk beds in the office if they miss the last train home.
The average tenure in Silicon Valley is 3.65 years, while in Chinese tech firms that number is less than 2.6 years. The tradition of 996 is a likely contributor to burnout, but as a deeply ingrained part of Chinese culture, it's not just a matter of keeping or discarding 996 in the workplace. Chinese Confucian values reward diligence and work ethic. Some employees may feel exploited at work and others may feel a moral obligation to stay at the office longer than their manager, clocking in 996 even when it's not in the company policy. With tech firms cutting salaries and bonuses during China's worst economic slowdown in nearly three decades, the country's tech workers may start to feel more stretched, but 996 will not be stopping anytime soon.