This week, China Voices brings TechNode Squared members a taste of social commentary decrying zero-sum competitiveness in education and the workplace. TechNode has not independently verified the claims made below.

Increasingly, the viral personal essays I come across reflecting on life in the Chinese internet have pessimistic viewpoints. This recent piece by Archibald Pei, an internet culture analyst, investor and independent filmmaker, paints a downbeat picture of Chinese work culture and its impact on society at large. Pei reflects on three recent news stories: Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei’s praise of a high school famous for its gaokao cramming, restrictions on gaming for minors, and an up-or-out policy for managers over 35 at Taobao.

He argues that these characteristics of large Chinese internet companies contribute to a form of “involution,” wherein the expansion of output is outpaced by labor growth, leaving individual workers less and less productive. Put more simply, he sees Chinese society devolving into a series of zero-sum competitions. He goes on to lament the narrowness and unrelenting pressure at the top of Chinese society.

This piece poses an interesting counterpoint to a recent article in Palladium, which argued that Americans underestimate just how good life in China is. 

If ‘involution’ cannot be overcome, is there any hope for the Chinese economy?

“Leader of the weird bandits gang” Archibald Pei

Oct 27

Recently, three posts repeatedly appeared in my WeChat Moments, which were shared and liked by many friends. They gave me a lot of food for thought.

The first one is a report about how Huawei’s Ren Zhengfei has praised the “Hengshui Model” in Hebei. It’s nothing new that Huawei, at the level of organizational culture, praises and studies Hengshui Middle School.

[Translator note: Hengshui Middle and High School are China’s most famous, demanding, and successful “gaokao factories.” They adopt military-style discipline and schedule students’ time down to the minute. Even at Peking University, Hengshui graduates have a fearsome reputation for hard work.]

The second one is about Taobao/Tmall, which is said to want to rejuvenate its “P8 level leadership” to have all of its team leaders under 35 years old. To be honest, I don’t quite believe this is true, because there is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, many people in my friend circle believe and applaud this news, thinking that a “rejuvenation of management” is the secret recipe for long-term success in business.

The third one is about a revision to the Law on the Protection of Minors that calls for limiting time spent playing online games. Not yet clear are the details of the law, nor how it will be implemented. However, most people in my friend circle still support the legislation.

What do the above three stories, old and new, have in common? They made me think of that ominous noun: “involution.”

[Pei then proceeds to explain the concept, borrowed from the historical study of agricultural economics, in a convoluted way. I suggest reading this simpler English-language blog post instead. In short: “Output expands, but at a slower rate than labor, so that output per worker falls.” Some argue that in China, post-1300 or so, this dynamic imposed Malthusian constraints on society and stifled innovation.]

Let me expand: The “Hengshui model” is a typical involution. No matter how many people are enrolled in Hengshui Middle School, or how high the number of students who make it to high school, the enrollment quota allocated by “211/985” universities (i.e. China’s best colleges) to Hebei Province remains unchanged.

[China has a geographical quota system which assigns slots in top universities by region. Extra slots are allocated for hometown schools, advantaging already privileged residents of Beijing, which has far and away the most top schools in the nation.]

In the whole of China, the enrollment quota for all kinds of colleges and universities for Hebei students basically remains unchanged. Even if Hengshui Middle School gets stronger, it only succeeds in taking slots away from other schools in Hebei, prompting even more top students to flock to Hengshui.

Even those students who stay in their locality, influenced by the Hengshui spirit, lead a gloomy high school life, studying all day and night. In fact, for all Hebei students, the Hengshui model is not only useless but also harmful—it prevents students from accumulating extracurricular knowledge and cultivating hobbies, and perpetuates the stereotype that “Hebei candidates are all exam-taking machines.”

Online games

“Managing the time minors spend playing online games” is also typical involution. Before the implementation of the law, minors’ playing time was already controlled by themselves and the head of the family.

Obviously, the number of students enrolled in any university in the country will not increase due to the introduction of “managing the time minors spent playing online games.”

Some people will argue that learning is not only for getting into college, but it also benefits you in life. I have to point out that if a child doesn’t want to learn, he or she has countless ways of zoning out. If you forbid games, he will watch dramas. If you restrict dramas, he will read novels; if you ban novels, he will chat with friends; if chatting is forbidden, he will just stare blankly … you will never be able to forbid staring. If you don’t solve the fundamental problem [of students needing an outlet] and just come up with a superficial thesis, what you get is “involution.”

As for the “rejuvenation of management in Internet companies,” and the widely controversial 996 work system [a schedule where people work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week], it is a huge driving force of involution. Beyond the tech industry, there’s a serious phenomenon of unlimited overtime and premature aging in old-school industries like finance. In investment institutions, researchers over 40 are a rare sight, and management personnel over 50 are also rare.

Death by overwork is by no means a myth. I know more than one such case from the post-1980’s generation; cases of people contracting a terminal illness by working long hours are even more plentiful. And some people think that hard work is a comparative advantage of China’s economy! A well-known investment organization whose name will not be mentioned [likely referencing this FT column by Sequoia’s Michael Moritz] claims that Chinese entrepreneurs are generally more indefatigable than their Silicon Valley counterparts, to the point they have little regard for their own personal well-being, meaning that China’s technological innovation will definitely beat the United States. Yeah, OK …

I’ve always thought this “struggle pressure” culture is really abnormal.

Let me expand further: The “struggle pressure” culture seen in China’s internet, finance and emerging industry circles is actually the legacy of Americans from the end of the 19th century. But Americans have already thoroughly realized its impossibility—not only is this work culture unachievable on a moral level, but it is unsustainable in practice. In Japan and South Korea, the culture of “struggle pressure” also prevailed for a while in the late 20th century, but because they did not withdraw it in time, it eventually evolved into an irreversible “involution.”

A week ago, an investor asked me, “Will China develop into an important market for console games and AAA games?” [AAA refers to prestige titles whose budgets run over $100 million, such as “World of Warcraft” or “Red Dead Redemption.”]

I replied firmly: “No!”

Confused, he asked, “But what if policy encourages it and technology keeps up?”

I said, “It’s still not possible. The average workload of the American workforce is 34 hours a week. In China, I think it’s 45-50 hours. For the middle class, it’s even higher. Every week the 996 people go home, take a shower, and are so tired they go straight to bed. Do you think they have time to play AAA games? Or do you think students who aren’t financially independent can afford AAA games?”

Frankly speaking, if professionals aged 35 or 40 or older are in constant danger of being out of work at any time, then it is impossible to sustain a truly stable demand for high-end consumption. This kind of horrible atmosphere is enough to curb anyone’s consumption. Only the “anxiety-peddling” self-media and knowledge payment platforms [like Ximalaya] will make a buck.

In the US, console and AAA games are a big industry, but so is outdoor sports (including equipment and services). Even landscaping is a big industry. Of course, according to my friend circle’s mainstream views, we don’t need to develop those frivolous industries. We just need to develop cloud computing, big data, AI, internet of things, blockchain, which are the high technologies that “determine the fortune of a nation.”

However, I still want to ask: Who will ultimately consume this? Isn’t consumption the most fundamental demand in all economies? Is insufficient marginal consumption not the culprit behind economic stagnation and even economic crisis? What applications do you plan to make using cloud computing, big data, and AI which will increase consumption?

At the end of the day, a lot of people still claim that games are harmful to children, it’s better not to waste time watching movies, adults don’t have time for entertainment, 996 is the way to success, and you can only succeed through bitter struggle. But is modern consumer culture really nothing more than fooling around and destroying your ambition? We spend so much time to gain so much knowledge and research so much advanced technology, but for what?

Jordan Schneider

Jordan Schneider is a freelancer based in Beijing and the host of the ChinaEconTalk podcast.

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