The world’s at war over the workweek, and Chinese billionaires won’t let the slackers win

When Chinese tech giants were criticized for overworking employees, their billionaire founders fought back.


April 16, 2019

Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba, posted a lengthy rant in support of China’s culture of extreme overtime work, drawing scorn from bleary-eyed Chinese engineers.

Ma and other billionaires celebrate 70-, 80-, and 130-hour workweeks. But workers worn thin by grueling hours are starting to protest — and research suggests longer hours don’t always lead to higher productivity.

The 996 is the new 9-to-5

Chinese tech companies are famous for a “996” culture, where sleep-deprived employees slave away from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week. 

But overworked Chinese employees finally put their feet down in March by launching 996.ICU, a Github campaign to raise awareness about unhealthy working conditions and call out companies imposing them. 

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Yet when Chinese tech giants — including Alibaba, JD.com, Pinduoduo, Huawei, and ByteDance — landed on the list, many of their billionaire founders publicly protested.

Billionaires love busy-ness

JD.com founder Richard Liu called people who protest 996 “slackers,” and insisted that he personally can work 8116 (aka 8 am to 11 pm, 6 days a week — or 90 hours per week).

It’s not just a Chinese phenomenon: Physically unhealthy overwork cultures exist in South Korea, Japan, and, of course, the US — where founders like Musk have turned work obsession into a secular religion.

America’s execs exalt overwork: Google exec Marissa Mayer boasts about 130-hour weeks, and Elon Musk — who works 120-hour weeks — famously claimed that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

Does Musk’s manic model actually work?

Research shows that never-ending workweeks aren’t the most productive: According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, worker output begins to drop once workers clock more than 48 hours per week.

Plus, the CDC reports that workers who are consistently putting in overtime are more susceptible to illness, alcohol use, smoking, and death.

The war for the workweek is just getting started in the US and China, but other countries are already tackling overwork: South Korea reduced its workweek from 68 to 52 hours, and Japan recently instituted its first cap on overtime to reduce karoshi — or “death by overwork.”

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