The shock was all around when a worker at China’s leading IT firm Pinduoduo recently collapsed and died under the pressure of overwork. But despite the fierce reactions, IT analyst Matthew Brennan, author of Attention Factory: The Story of Tiktok and China’s Bytedance, does not expect the culture of overwork in China’s IT firms will disappear, he tells Vice.
“China’s private sector economy is fast-paced, dynamic, and in many areas, intensely competitive. The lucrative and rapidly expanding internet services sector amplifies these characteristics, taking them to a whole other level,” Matthew Brennan, a China-based tech analyst and co-founder of digital marketing consultancy China Channel, told VICE World news.
As the tech industry’s toxic work culture gains prominence in the public consciousness, there is now greater pushback from Chinese employees. In 2019, a GitHub-based protest movement called 996.ICU saw software developers challenging the exploitative practices that run rampant in the industry (ICU is short for Intensive Care Unit). In the 996.ICU GitHub repository, people shared workplace anecdotes, exposed unreasonably demanding tech companies, and designed a software license that forces companies to comply with local labor laws.
Despite such isolated incidents of activism, however, Brennan thinks that the culture of overworking in China is “unlikely” to subside anytime soon. “Business in China’s internet industry is conducted like a brutal guerrilla war in which developers, engineers, and operations staff work themselves to death under grueling schedules in which speed of execution is everything,” he said.
And in this system, tech employees are often “willing to be chewed up and spat out of the system by their mid-30s in exchange for generous compensation or the chance to strike it rich with an IPO.”
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