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China’s “996” Work Culture: Impacts and Implications

Last Updated on 2023/09/23

Balancing Ambition and Well-being: A Look at the “996” Phenomenon.

The “996” work culture (九九六工作制) refers to an informal work schedule that has gained notoriety in the People’s Republic of China. This demanding routine requires employees to work from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, six days a week, amounting to a 72-hour work week. In comparison, this is significantly higher than the standard 40-hour work week observed in many countries, and also exceeds China’s own legal limits on working hours, which are set at 44 hours per week.

Originating predominantly within the fast-paced technology sector, the “996” system soon permeated other industries, driven by the relentless pursuit of growth and competitive advantage. It represents not just a working schedule but an ethos, often associated with startup vigor and the race to achieve market dominance in an ever-evolving technological landscape.

However, the practice is not without its detractors. Beyond concerns of legality, the “996” work culture has sparked debates on worker rights, health implications, and the broader societal costs of an unyielding work regimen.

Historical Context

The rapid technological and economic advancements of China in the 21st century have spurred immense competition, especially in sectors such as e-commerce, fintech, and AI. In this environment, many companies, ranging from fledgling startups to established giants, adopted aggressive work schedules to keep pace with market demands and stake their claim in this booming ecosystem.

The term “996” became emblematic of this relentless drive. While it’s unclear who first coined the term or when it precisely began, it has been popularized and often romanticized as a testament to commitment and ambition, especially in the high-tech hubs of cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.

International Comparison

To put the “996” work culture in perspective, it’s worth noting international standards for comparison. For instance:

  • United States: The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) generally prescribes a 40-hour work week, with provisions for overtime pay.
  • European Union: The Working Time Directive stipulates a maximum 48-hour work week, including overtime.
  • Japan: Known for its intense work culture, even Japan has legal limits set at 40 regular hours per week, with additional hours counted as overtime.

Comparatively, the “996” schedule is an outlier, far exceeding the norms of even the most industrious nations.

Criticism and Controversy

The “996” work culture, while popular among certain business leaders, has faced significant backlash. The primary criticisms revolve around three main issues:

  1. Violation of Labor Laws: As stipulated in the Labor Law of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国劳动法), the standard work week should not exceed 44 hours. The “996” schedule, at 72 hours per week, grossly overshadows this legal mandate, rendering companies that enforce it susceptible to legal challenges.
  2. Health and Well-being Concerns: Extended hours, especially those as prolonged as the “996” regimen, have been linked with a myriad of health issues. These range from physical ailments, such as heart conditions and fatigue, to mental health problems, including increased rates of anxiety, depression, and burnout.
  3. Work-Life Imbalance: The “996” culture, by its very nature, encroaches on personal and family time, leading to concerns about its broader societal implications. This has raised questions about the cost of economic progress, especially when it undermines personal relationships and family structures.

Adding to these criticisms is the emergence of online platforms and forums where disgruntled employees voice their concerns. The most notable of these is “996.ICU”. Initially hosted on GitHub, this repository became a beacon for tech workers and others, allowing them to share stories, seek support, and even list companies practicing “996.”

Advocates and Defense

In stark contrast to its critics, several industry figureheads advocate for the “996” work schedule. Their defense often centers around the fierce competition in the Chinese market, where rapid innovation and agility are deemed crucial for success.

Jack Ma (马云), co-founder of the tech giant Alibaba (阿里巴巴), is perhaps the most prominent supporter of this work culture. In a widely cited statement, Ma described the opportunity to work “996” as a “blessing,” arguing that such dedication is essential for anyone looking to excel in the tech industry. This perspective, while shared by other business magnates, has been met with skepticism. Critics argue that such a stance normalizes overwork and overlooks the human cost of such demanding schedules.

Internationally, the “996” work culture has drawn scrutiny, with some observers citing it as an example of the extreme measures companies may take in unregulated environments. This international gaze has further added to the debate, with global tech companies and investors deliberating the ethics of supporting or partnering with firms that adhere to “996.”

Impact on Health and Society

Physical Health

The intense “996” work culture has been directly and indirectly linked to a variety of physical health concerns:

  • Heart Conditions: Extended work hours without adequate breaks can lead to increased heart rate and high blood pressure, culminating in more serious conditions such as cardiovascular diseases.
  • Chronic Fatigue: Consistently working 12-hour days can lead to persistent fatigue, reducing an individual’s ability to function both mentally and physically.

Mental Health

Equally concerning are the mental health implications:

  • Burnout: This state of chronic workplace stress is characterized by feelings of energy depletion, reduced professional efficacy, and emotional exhaustion.
  • Depression and Anxiety: The pressures of prolonged work hours combined with limited personal time can amplify feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and heightened anxiety.
  • Sudden Deaths: There have been tragic instances where professionals, particularly in the tech sector, have passed away suddenly, with overwork being cited as a potential factor. One notable case from 2021 involved a young employee from the e-commerce platform Pinduoduo (拼多多), igniting significant debate around the issue.

Societal Impact

The societal ramifications of the “996” work schedule are vast:

  • Family Life: Extended work hours can lead to strained familial relationships, with parents finding limited time to spend with their children.
  • Personal Relationships: The limited personal time available to individuals following a “996” schedule can hinder the cultivation and maintenance of personal relationships.
  • Work-Life Balance: The overarching concern remains the skewed balance between professional obligations and personal life, with the latter often being sacrificed.

Regulatory Response

Governmental Stance

The Chinese government, although often seen as pro-business, has not remained entirely silent on the issue:

  • In 2019, China’s Supreme People’s Court (最高人民法院) released a report highlighting a case where an employer was penalized for enforcing work schedules similar to “996,” suggesting that such practices may indeed be against the law.
  • Various departments, including the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (人力资源和社会保障部), have been urged to intensify their scrutiny of businesses violating labor rights.

Labor Rights Groups

Across China, various labor rights organizations and activists have taken up the cause:

  • Calls for more stringent inspections and enforcement of existing labor laws have been sounded by numerous NGOs and advocacy groups.
  • Online platforms and social media campaigns have been instrumental in highlighting these concerns. Besides “996.ICU,” movements on platforms like Weibo (微博) and WeChat (微信) have given workers a platform to share their stories and seek solidarity.


Topics: “996 work culture in China”, “health effects of 996 schedule”, “popular culture depiction of 996”, “regulation of 996 work hours in China”, “tech industry adoption of 996”, “public reaction to 996 work culture”

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