Joining one of China’s tech majors is a bit like moving to a new country. There’s a lot to learn.
On your first day, you pick a new name in the local language. If it’s Alibaba, maybe you try to sound like a swordsman from a Jin Yong novel; if it’s Tencent, it’s probably something from your high school English textbook. You might get a message from “Watermelon”—and if you do, you’d better jump to attention.
Caiwei Chen is a freelance writer covering culture, the internet, and their intersections.
Then you’ve got to get on the local time zone—probably some variation on the infamous 996 hours.
Maybe you adopt a local religion, such as the benfen idea of duty. Or maybe you study the way of the fish touchers and stockpile snacks in the break room.
Working in big tech companies in China is certainly grueling, hard, and all-consuming. But it can also be liberating compared to the rigid hierarchies of traditional workplaces.
No boss or big brother
Nickname systems were introduced not just for discipline and management, but also for information safety and secrecy. In companies and departments that strictly implement the system, it is normal to not know the real name of a co-worker you cooperate with, especially when she works in a different department. Even when companies display the real names of employees along with their nicknames in internal communication systems—as Baidu and ByteDance do—just about every tech company omits precise ranks.
The nickname systems can be liberating, or at least were intended to be. “Everyone going by their nickname instead of calling each other based on their seniority felt more egalitarian than back in college,” explained a young employee at gaming giant NetEase.
The ambiguity of the job position descriptions is intentional. In fact, internet companies are known to be China’s biggest advocates of a western workplace-inspired sense of equality and direct communication. ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming has stressed multiple times in public that he encourages employees to address each other by their real given names, even those of elders and supervisors.
It’s a clear rejection of the omnipresent hierarchy in traditional Chinese culture that is still commonplace in state-owned enterprises. Zhang has stressed that the use of zong (boss), ge (older brother) and jie (older sister) should all be abolished as well to create a more inclusive and equal workplace.
Watermelon and Monkey King
Even though tech companies try hard to cultivate a flat workplace, seasoned employees still find ways to thwart the system. Since internal communication systems do not allow two employees to have the same nicknames, the shorter and easier one’s nickname, the higher ranking a co-worker tends to be.
It is no secret that Pinduoduo founder Colin Huang, who recently announced that he is stepping down as chairman, bears the nickname A Zhuang, while the real identity of top executive A Bu remains a mystery even to the media. Below the founders’ circle of A nicknames, the next tier of executives tend to use the names of fruits.
“If you see someone nicknamed ‘Watermelon,’ ‘Monkey King,’ or ‘Doraemon,’ it’s almost certain they are senior managers,” said a Pinduoduo marketing employee. “More recent employees sometimes have to rack their brains just to think of a nickname that hasn’t been taken,” she said.
There are also some business units in which all staff members share matching nicknames from the same family in a work of fiction. “The longer an employee stays at the company, the better he or she will get at identifying a co-worker’s grip on the company just by their nicknames,” said the Pinduoduo employee.
Although the biggest Chinese tech companies largely share the desire for innovation, productivity, and growth that defines the industry, they tend to have different interpretations of the terms.
Zhang’s own company, app factory and TikTok owner ByteDance, does not buy into the nickname system. The founders took a more direct approach to flattening their organizational structure. ByteDance employees are encouraged to call each other directly by their real given names, including calling Zhang himself “Yiming” to set the trend. The practice was also mirrored in Lark, the workplace messaging tool and working station developed by ByteDance.
On the other hand, DingTalk, the internal messaging app of Alibaba, is an indicator of a more traditional hierarchical structure. It features stringent managerial functions, including punching in and out, review and approval, as well as briefings to the superiors. “DingTalk was designed to meet the managers’ administrative needs rather than those of individual team collaborators,” said a front-end engineer who has used DingTalk extensively for three years, “This reflects Alibaba’s culture. A relatively old-school internet company, Alibaba feels more authoritarian than some of the other internet companies, but is also more stable in terms of personnel and administration.”
Media outlet Jizhou Studio described some of the common perceptions among young students of the emblematic personality traits of each internet giant. Alibaba prefers “high-achieving team players, who also lay great emphasis on execution,” it said, while graduates who get job offers from Tencent “tend to be the ones who are better at self-expression and active in student clubs and societies.” Those who go on to join ByteDance tend to be creative, while Pinduoduo prefers “hard-working, simple-minded, and benfen people.”
Staying in the benfen lane
The term benfen repeatedly cropped up in the accounts of working conditions by former Pinduoduo employees in the aftermath of the recent deaths of two young overworked employees. Pinduoduo is renowned for demanding work hours even beyond the notorious 996 so common in internet companies. Benfen roughly translates to “one’s part/role” and implies “staying in one’s own lane, realizing one’s own duty as well as what is beyond one’s grasp.” Benfen is stressed as a key value and enforced as an important guideline inside the company.
Chinese media consider benfen culture a legacy of Chinese entrepreneur Duan Yongping, the founder of electronics appliance company BBK, which was later split into smartphone makers Oppo and Vivo. Duan also served as a business mentor to Colin Huang. On the corporate level, these four companies share a conservative development strategy that places cost-effectiveness of an existing popular product or proven viable model over revolutionary innovation.
In the newest interpretation of Duan’s benfen philosophy, Pinduoduo has transformed the idea into a means to whip employees into hyper-intense competition. To a regular employee, the culture translates into nothing less than selfless dedication to the company, which only leads to one result: endless overtime work.
Hamsters touch fish
Oftentimes, unwritten expectations are what keep people in the office longer than the usual 996 working hours. For Zeng Jiajun, a former product manager who worked, consecutively, at Tencent, Baidu, Meituan, and ByteDance, getting off work at 9 p.m. was the earliest he experienced during his years at big internet companies. In fact, leaving then after a 12-hour workday was considered a “very early” punching-out time in the industry. “It feels like being a hamster on a wheel. We are more driven by the KPIs (key performance indicators) than the mandatory working hours themselves,” said a former Pinduoduo employee, who prefers to stay anonymous. “You cannot choose to leave when all other wheel gears are turning in the machine.”
The hustling culture often feels oppressive and unnecessary to many workers, especially when combined with bureaucracy and administrative errands. While many big tech companies embrace “wolf culture,” a term coined by Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei that highlights “hyper-intense teamwork,” burned-out young workers have come up with their own types of resistance: They have cultivated an underground culture of slacking off, or moyu. Literally meaning “touching fish,” the term comes from a Chinese proverb: “Muddy water makes it easier to catch fish.” In the online world, moyu has come to refer to surreptitious coping mechanisms undertaken in high-pressure workplaces.
“What are the solutions to keep a balance between making money and staying healthy? The first way is to have a rich father, the second is moyu,” advises Xianren Jump, a popular Bilibili creator in a viral video that calls on fans to join the moyu force.
Forces of moyu
Moyu caught public attention in multiple online communities as netizens shared hacks for dossing off at work and memes for a good laugh. On Weibo, blogger “Massage Bear” garnered a big following for her passive-aggressive approach to moyu philosophy. “Set eight daily reminders on your phone to drink water. Every time you go to the pantry room or bathroom, try to hang out longer and use more company resources like free beverages and toilet paper,” reads one of Massage Bear’s posts. To the internet workers who have very little leeway to let loose at work, taking small opportunities to loaf on the job almost feels revengeful.
When clever moyu practices become too evident, companies take measures to crack down on them. Zhang, the ByteDance founder, rebuked employees for generating too many messages during work hours in an internal group chat of Genshin Impact game players. “I’m curious: Do these friends in the group have too much free time at work?” asked Zhang.
Other companies have tried to regulate the length of toilet breaks in response to employees dallying in bathrooms to recharge. Pinduoduo reportedly blocked internet access in bathrooms, which made playing with smartphones on toilet breaks practically impossible, while Kuaishou installed a timer to display how long each stall has been occupied.
Aside from trying to do less work while maintaining the same work hours, internet company workers have also developed the art of “making their progress seem bigger.” In a recent viral WeChat post, a blogger known as “Xierqi Life Guide” ridiculed the phenomenon of increasingly unnecessary report writing. As actual working hours stretch beyond the default 996, commonly required work summary documents have ballooned from weekly reports into daily reports at many over-achieving business units. Rather than accurately communicating workloads, many commenters agreed with the original WeChat post that the arduous reporting system only added to the formality of internet corporates.
996 survival skills
Why do China’s best and brightest young people choose to join these cyber factories? The opportunities promised by internet giants, along with the financial incentives, are a key appeal. The 996 workweek is hardly a dealbreaker for many driven young people in the face of a full package of benefits in today’s extremely competitive job market, as well as opportunities to be part of “something bigger.”
For some, the still private ByteDance is an ideal career starter for the potential it represents, despite the demands of 996. ByteDance recruited more than 40,000 employees globally in 2020 alone, almost doubling its workforce by the end of the last year. Newish internet powerhouses Pinduoduo and Meituan also ramped up their fresh graduate recruiting numbers this year in order to enrich their talent reserve for future competition.
For a lot of young graduates of top Chinese universities, their experiences of extreme competition that enabled them to survive China’s notorious gaokao university entrance exam make 996 hours appear less appalling in comparison. Even with the limitations, internet companies are, after all, places where hard work and good performance pay off.
To more and more young people, though, opting to work in big tech feels more practical and “safe” than a wild dream coming true. “Internet companies are the new state-owned enterprises, said Eddy Gu, a recent graduate in search of a job. Turning the clock back only 20 years, state-owned enterprises were regarded as the dream career destinations in Chinese society due to the complete package of benefits, institutional stability, and prestige. With all the efforts to “be different,” internet giants are probably in the end more similar than they intended to be to those now-stagnant predecessors.
READ MORE: INSIGHTS | Why 996 just won’t go away
Just another dagongren
Some big tech employees, therefore, are just showing up to earn a paycheck.
A recent trend has young internet laborers referring to themselves as dagongren—working stiffs, the same phrase used to refer to migrant workers who go to the city to work on construction sites. “Dagongren” channels youths’ disillusionment with their outwardly glamorous city life: In a competitive job market and fast-paced society, they simply do not have much control over their own lives compared to their almighty employers.
Kyle Lin, currently an intern at ByteDance, thinks the surging living costs in major Chinese cities partially explain why many young people gravitate towards 996 hours. Lin rents a very small bedroom in an apartment shared with three other roommates in Beijing. “The wage I get as an intern barely covers the rent, but staying at the company for the entire day means free meals, free snacks, and a gym that I use,” said Lin. These Silicon Valley-inspired perks, of course, are meant to keep people on the company “campus” beyond their required working hours.
“I already accepted the reality of sacrificing health and personal life when I accepted the job after graduating,” said Kiki Zhou, a product manager who joined Alibaba about a year ago as a fresh university graduate. “The trade-off is a cruel but economic one, especially when there’s no other way to get enough savings for the down payment on an apartment,” she said.
Zhou now resides in Hangzhou with her boyfriend, who also works at Alibaba, but she plans to get a government job that allows more leisure time as soon as the couple have saved enough money. To accumulate that sum, Zhou estimates their stints as big tech dagongren will last at least four more years.