China’s state-owned media condemns 996 work schedule, says it is illegal

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(Image credit: Alibaba)

China’s top government media outlets are adding their voices to the debate around the 12-hour work practice in the tech industry, harshly reminding entrepreneurs to “obey the rules” and “avoid chaos.”

According to a commentary released Tuesday via state-owned Xinhua News Agency, China Labor Law dictates that work schedules should not exceed eight hours per day and 44 hours on average per week. Given specific reasons, workers can put in a maximum of three hours per day and 36 hours per month of overtime. “Obviously, the 996 work schedule is illegal,” said Xinhua (our translation).

Well-known shorthand referring to 12 hours a day, six days a week at top Chinese tech companies, 996 has triggered extensive public debate over the weekend following Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s pronouncement that overtime work culture was a “huge blessing.” In remarks posted on Alibaba’s WeChat account, the billionaire entrepreneur defended the 12-hour workweek, asking, “how can you achieve huge success if you don’t spare more time and effort than others?” (our translation).

Ma endorsed the concept again on Sunday in a WeChat post, saying individuals stick to the 996 or 997 schedule because “they found passion beyond economic benefit.” He added that he had no intention to defend the “inhumane” and “unhealthy” practice, while referring to the country’s success of developing missile bombs and satellites in the 1960s as examples to persuade people to “fight for their future.”

This was immediately criticized by Banyuetan, another state media outlet, which referenced Ma’s post directly. “The defendants for 996 form a strong team, including some of our respected star entrepreneurs… However, the way they equated the 996 work schedule with endeavor was untenable from the very beginning from a logistical perspective.” The state mouthpiece, led by the national publicity department, censured those who used China’s military progress to stigmatize the eight-hour work schedule as laziness, and urged employers to “ensure the rights of their workers with actual benefits” (our translation).

So far, Chinese tech entrepreneurs, including Jack Ma, JD.com founder Richard Liu, and search engine company Sogou founder Wang Xiaochuan, have expressed their advocacy for the 12-hour workday, which is not unique in the Chinese tech industry. Apart from Xinhua and Banyuetan, advocates previously met harsh criticism from the state-run newspaper People’s Daily, who stated in a commentary published Sunday that the mandatory enforcement of 996 work schedule “not only reflects the arrogance of business managers, but is also unfair and impractical.”