By Yuan Yang
June 10, 2021
By the time he arrived at Alibaba, Tim had been working to get there for years. Raised in a small town in Zhejiang province, he’d competed to be at the top of every school class.
As a student at one of China’s best universities, he knew tech giants rarely hire without prior work experience, so he competed for internships at social media companies Tencent and ByteDance. And as a recent graduate, he competed in four rounds of interviews and a written exam before finally receiving an offer.
After a few months working at the company’s Hangzhou campus, Tim was called into a meeting with the other four graduates hired in his round. “At the end of the year,” their team leader told them, “one of you will lose.”
This “loser” was a feature of Alibaba’s ranking system. Workers earn a base salary and, at the end of the financial year, nearly everyone gets a hefty bonus. The losers – those bottom-ranked by management – get little or nothing no matter how productive they are. Often they take it as a sign they should leave. Tim felt angry as he realised he was being pitted against his own teammates. Compete, or else.
Afterwards, the new hires discussed their new reality. They found it “foolish and hypocritical” when the team leader told them the scheme would help them grow. “Very talented people can thrive in an environment filled with competition, while ordinary people are better in cooperative settings,” says Tim. “I used to think I was the first kind of person, but I realised I was the second.” The others had fought as hard as he had to get there and, now that they were, they “couldn’t stand it”. They fell silent and got to work.
Forced ranking is just one of many recent flashpoints that have generated scrutiny of workplace practices at China’s large tech companies. Allegations of overwork, abuse and injury have become the subject of heated nationwide debate. Last December, the deaths of two young staffers at one of Alibaba’s competitors, Pinduoduo, fuelled the fire. (One collapsed on the way home from work. The other died by suicide.)
Such working conditions compelled Chinese software developers to launch a campaign to raise international awareness of their working conditions, christened “996 ICU”. The name refers to a colloquial saying among tech workers that if you work 9am to 9pm, six days a week, as some managers demand, you’ll end up in intensive care. Over the past two years, 996 ICU has crowdsourced allegations of mistreatment from employees at more than 200 Chinese companies.
Even for the large number of engineers working under less brutal conditions, a pervasive sense of the drudgery of uncreative, repetitive tech work has led them to self-identify with manual and agricultural labourers. Many refer to themselves as “code peasants”, and the most common nickname for the tech giants as a group is “big factories”.
Some employees sardonically compare tech companies to “fortified cities”, a reference to a 1940s novel which satirised marriage and other aspects of middle-class Chinese society: when you’re outside, you want to get in. But when you’re inside, you want to get out.
Consumer-facing internet companies such as Alibaba, Tencent and Meituan are a crucial part of the country’s economy and its most valuable publicly listed corporations by far. (Alibaba and Tencent combined are worth more than $1.1tn.) They helped remake the global image of Chinese power by creating the world’s original mobile-first marketplace in the 2010s.
But after a decade of explosive growth, a rift has emerged between generations. While older workers have a stake, both financial and cultural, many of those born after 1995 fear they missed out. This new generation wants an end to long working hours and cut-throat competition. In short, they want an end to everything their predecessors thought essential.
Chinese tech founders have taken plenty of inspiration from American business. ByteDance chief executive Zhang Yiming got his “always day one” motto from Jeff Bezos of Amazon and frequently cites Jack Welch’s book Winning. Alibaba maintains the small apartment in which Jack Ma founded the company as a kind of work shrine, not unlike HP, which acquired and refurbished the Palo Alto garage where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard launched their business. Even gripes about life as a “code peasant” distantly echo Silicon Valley developers referring to themselves as “code monkeys” in the mid-1990s.
Western technology giants have faced serious workplace problems, ranging from exploitative human resources practices to race and gender discrimination. The major differences between companies such as Facebook and Apple and their counterparts in China are speed and scale. From 2019 to 2021, for example, ByteDance grew its staff from 60,000 to 100,000. Alibaba more than doubled its number of employees in the past year to exceed 250,000.
By comparison, it took Google four years to double its ranks to 140,000. In other words, issues that might be adjudicated over the course of a half decade can compound in the span of 12 months.
“Chinese tech companies never get old,” explains Kai-Fu Lee, a globally known investor in China. Lee founded Microsoft Research Asia, which incubated the founders of many of China’s tech behemoths. He characterises consumer-facing companies as having a quasi-permanent “lean start-up” approach that necessitates rapid shifts in objectives. Rather than starting with a predetermined notion of what consumers want, the companies experiment with a product, change it according to market response and continue evolving it rapidly.
“Meituan began as a Groupon for China. Now it’s delivering groceries, takeaway and medication,” he says. “Because of the gladiatorial environment, they’ve always had to stay paranoid and change constantly.”
What is being lost as a result of the pursuit of hypergrowth is widely debated in China. Netizens have latched on to a newly fashionable term: “involution” (nei juan). Anthropologist Clifford Geertz popularised the word in the 1960s in work describing unusual aspects of one rural economy in Java, Indonesia. Geertz posited that, over the course of centuries, ever-increasing amounts of labour had poured in but output remained constant. No innovation had occurred. Geertz called this involution.
In 2018 and 2019, the term became popular in China thanks to the writing of Cao Fengze, a PhD student in China’s top school of engineering at Tsinghua University. Cao’s posts chronicled intense, zero-sum competition between classmates for admission to elite universities. He argued the result of so much competition for so few spaces is that students work harder and harder without gain.
“Every effort is nothing other than an attempt to push another snowflake over the edge,” Cao wrote, alluding to the proverb “every snowflake in an avalanche is responsible”. For him, involution is catastrophe.
Cao, whose hundreds of thousands of online followers call themselves the “Cao School”, believes the root of involution is the struggle over limited resources. The metaphor of resource competition is one of the most pervasive in Chinese society. Discussions about the country’s problems tend to culminate in the assertion, “there are too many people in China”.
China’s consumer-facing technology companies have clearly benefited from the number of people – all potential users – and likely from artificial competition as well. For their most promising projects, many companies run “horse races” in which several teams pick the same goal. At the end of the race, one winner is crowned by the company or, in some cases, by users after products are released to compete with each other on the market. For example, multiple internal teams raced to create the final incarnation of WeChat, Tencent’s all-in-one messaging and payments app which has become an essential part of daily life.
So-called “hot-housing” or “closed-door projects” are another attempt to recreate the start-up atmosphere. At ByteDance, for example, a dozen or so designers, engineers and product managers hunker down in one room for a month to work round the clock. A company illustration explaining the concept emphasises that afternoon tea and midnight snacks are provided as well as regular meals. “Tell your family and friends,” a cartoon boss orders workers, “you are about to enter a very special period.”
In 2014, Alibaba’s version of hot-housing led to DingTalk, which now has an 80 per cent share of China’s enterprise communication users. As if on pilgrimage, Alibaba sends participating employees to the cramped Hangzhou apartment where the company was born. (The company owns additional apartments in the same block.) Teams working on special projects live and work there, barely leaving the compound, for months at a time.
Yet for all the glorification of innovation, a lack of creative work is common for the vast majority of technical employees. “They don’t have the time to come up with ideas or control the direction of their work,” says one ByteDance employee. “They have so much mental load from the tasks they have in the narrow scope they’re given, that they don’t have the latitude to think about anything extra.”
According to a Tencent manager, squeezing employees’ time is often an intended outcome of the management system, rather than an inefficiency. “When we consider why some products succeed, it’s not necessarily because they have better technology,” he says. “It’s because they simply have more people labouring away.” Most developers, he says, are in fact completing repetitive tasks known as “create, read, update and delete” work, such as changing the minute details of a user interface over and over.
“The growth of China’s tech giants has not come from true innovation but from labour intensity. It’s very difficult to automate certain parts of the software sector,” says Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford university. “Forced ranking is not about efficiency or fair reward, but about control. This single method destroys all solidarity between peers. It generates obedience and fear towards the person above.”
At 10.30pm on a Tuesday night, the pavement outside Tencent Mansions in Shenzhen is dotted with staff wearing blue lanyards around their necks. Some queue for the bus, while others wait for ride-shares. Behind them, an illuminated panel displays a government advert advising residents to “relax” and “release pressure” next to cartoons of adults flying kites and skateboarding.
Jun, a 23-year-old working for Tencent Cloud, is in the queue. He says half of his team is still in the office and notes that older staff with kids get to go home earlier. He tells me he’s happy to trade long hours for a high salary.
Entry-level technical positions can fetch total remuneration, including bonuses, of as much as Rmb300,000-Rmb400,000 (£33,000-£44,000) per year, more than double the average for graduates of China’s top engineering university, Tsinghua. For him, the 12-hour workday is acceptable since Tencent staff still have weekends, unlike many other tech giants. And his commute is short.
Like all staff working past 8pm, he gets a night snack voucher, which he uses to buy a meal deal at the McDonald’s downstairs. Other staff are more extravagant. On a table for takeaway deliveries outside Tencent’s foyer sits an entire hand-shredded chicken. The receipt shows it was ordered at 9.59pm.
As for the work itself, Jun says he feels it is difficult to break into the ranks of employees who really “used their minds”. He beat 80 other engineering masters graduates for his position, but the company “hires masters graduates to do something a high school student could also do”, he says. When I ask him why, Jun responds, “involution”.
How a second generation of tech workers such as Jun is adapting or clashing with the work cultures of China’s internet economy companies is a topic of long discussion when I visit a restaurant in the suburbs of Hangzhou. I’m eating with Jason, a man in his mid-thirties who has worked at Alibaba in ecommerce for 10 years, as well as his wife Cathy, a talkative product manager at Ant Group, the company’s mobile payments affiliate. They bought their nearby home with a company loan and describe themselves as “Ali people”. Cathy says, “The problem we as a company now face is how to transmit the Ali culture down to new staff.”
Jason adds that the company’s hiring process includes an HR person dedicated to “sniffing out the culture. You can smell Ali culture on someone.” Cathy explains the culture is “about doing things of value to others while also developing yourself”. She recalls that when she struggled with a change of role, Jason employed Ali culture by telling her change was an opportunity to challenge herself.
Cathy acknowledges there is a generation gap between the couple and newer recruits, who mostly missed out on the years of rapid growth and equity shares. She says younger employees feel frustrated by how much harder it is to achieve “economic freedom”. The couple agree this can make the post-1995 generation trickier to manage. “They don’t like criticism, they want self-realisation,” Cathy says. “They’re not as willing to suffer as we were”.
Tim, the recent Alibaba hire who spent years competing to get there, describes the company’s values as “more like ‘chicken soup’”, slang for a meaningless story told merely to soothe the listener. Another term he uses in describing the relation of older managers to younger employees is “PUA”, short for pick-up artist. He and his colleagues mostly use it to describe managers who over-promise opportunities for advancement to the point of creating a dishonest or even abusive relationship. PUA is another neologism. In China, the linguistic space for complaining about your boss has been expanding lately.
Over the past two years, even before the pandemic, local media has been preoccupied with a surprising trend among the nation’s top graduates. They’re increasingly attracted to careers in the polar opposite of tech: government.
Lily, a 26-year-old woman from a small city in Guangdong province, is one of them. Last year, she accepted a job at Bilibili, an online video portal that she describes as the nation’s home for “two-dimensionals” like herself. (The term refers to superfans of anime, cartoons and games.) But Lily soon began having doubts about her new life in Shanghai.
Bilibili was expanding rapidly – within four months of Lily joining, the number of staff had doubled – and managers heaped on the pressure. Her team leader had come from a fast-growing competitor with an aggressive corporate culture. “Whenever she criticised something,” Lily recalls, “she would make it about you personally rather than the issue at hand, making you feel like trash.”
After sustained overwork, Lily’s health deteriorated. She began hearing ringing in her ears, feeling dizzy and was eventually put on an IV drip in the hospital. “In addition to those who left, there were also those who got depressed,” she says of her team. “I didn’t have the energy to think of other options.” So she quit, returned home and became a civil servant. She says, “I no longer have the feeling of danger that I used to have more or less all the time.”
Lily’s experience may become more common. In 2019, the highly renowned Peking University revealed that, of all the graduates that year who had signed university-approved employment agreements, 17 per cent went into China Communist party work or other parts of government, up from 11 per cent four years prior. In total, counting those who had gone into state-administered institutions and state-owned enterprises, three-quarters of graduates had gone “into the system”. In the same period, the proportion of graduates going into private businesses such as tech had been halved.
A tech worker writing anonymously in a local newspaper editorial last year summed up the feelings of many by describing his envy for friends working in state-owned enterprises and foreign companies. “Many of us are drained, ‘elderly’ middle managers just holding on,” the person wrote. “Just because we laid the bricks of an incredible wealth boom, doesn’t mean we’ll ever be allowed past the gates.”
So far, scrutiny of tech work practices has mostly played out in social media and online. Despite socialist-era labour protections in Chinese law, local governments are loath to enforce prohibitions on forced overtime. In fact, many seem more inclined to accommodate the companies on which they rely for economic growth and tax revenue. And while in the past half-year the central government has reprimanded tech companies over a variety of violations of financial and antitrust regulations, there have been no such high-level accusations over the treatment of workers.
But late last year, Chinese media began widely reporting the contents of a leaked Alibaba email from chief people officer Tong Wenhong. In an unusual move, Tong acknowledged it had been the “most challenging year” in the company’s 21-year history. She noted the “immense” dispute over forced ranking. Alibaba’s senior-most management seemed to be reflecting on its own problems, problems younger employees have been vocal about. (The company did not deny the accuracy of the memo’s contents.)
Tong went on to announce that forced ranking would be relaxed. Not every team would have to assign the bottom 10 per cent loser status. This year, Alibaba has also handed out more shares to junior employees. “Talent is Alibaba Group’s most important asset. We strongly believe that an open and transparent work culture is key to fostering innovation,” wrote a spokesperson in a statement to the Financial Times. “The company’s robust and competitive compensation system reflects our clear priority in cultivating the next generation of talents.”
To Tim’s surprise, the promises were kept. None of his colleagues were deemed losers. In fact, all of them received respectable bonuses. “This is the only fair outcome,” he says, adding that he isn’t grateful since he feels this is how his employer should have been conducting itself all along. “There are more and more young people in the company, and I think the management style will have to change.” Tim was talking to me over the phone on a Tuesday just before midnight. Recently, it’s the only time he’s been free to chat.
Yuan Yang is the FT’s deputy Beijing bureau chief. Additional reporting by Qianer Liu in Shenzhen
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