A content moderator at Chinese video streaming site Bilibili died on Feb. 4 while working a Lunar New Year holiday shift. On Monday, the company said that the deceased employee didn’t work excessive hours before his death, but online influencers say otherwise.  

Why it matters: The sudden death of the Bilibili employee has renewed public discussions about the persisting overwork culture of Chinese tech companies. The news has drawn extra attention since it happened during the Lunar New Year holiday, China’s all-important annual public holiday.

  • Under mounting public scrutiny, Chinese tech giants such as Alibaba, ByteDance, Meituan, and Kuaishou have tried to improve staff’s working conditions by either introducing shorter working hours or enhancing worker benefits.

READ MORE: Insights | Why ‘996’ just won’t go away 

Details: A Bilibili employee, nicknamed “Twilight Muxin” died of a brain hemorrhage on Feb. 4 after working a holiday shift from home during the seven-day break for the traditional Chinese New Year, according to an internal Bilibili memo shared with TechNode on Tuesday.

  • The male employee felt unwell on the afternoon of Feb. 4 and was rushed to the hospital. He was pronounced dead around 8:00 p.m. on the same day after hours of rescue attempts failed to revive him. The employee joined Bilibili in May last year and worked in the company’s content review department.
  • Facing heightened scrutiny over its content from Chinese authorities, Bilibili, a Nasdaq-listed streaming site, had a sizable 2,400-member content moderation and auditing team as of 2020, roughly 30% of the company’s headcount at the time.

Conflicting narrative: There are two different narratives regarding the employee’s cause of death. Weibo workplace blogger “Wang Luobei” first broke the news on Monday around noon, blaming the company’s grueling work schedule for the tragedy. Bilibili denied the employee had worked overtime in a Monday memo, stating that he had worked 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. each day during the Spring Festival, considered “regular working hours.”

  • The deceased employee, an AI audit team leader based in Wuhan, had worked five consecutive 12-hour shifts from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. during the New Year holiday, according to the blogger’s sources.
  • Bilibili says in the memo that it has set up a special team to cooperate with the police and the employee’s family to follow up on the matter.

Context: Chinese labor law dictates that work schedules should not exceed eight hours per day and 44 hours on average per week. Given specific circumstances, workers can put in a maximum of three hours per day and 36 hours per month of overtime. 

  • Overtime work culture in Chinese tech firms drew widespread public ire in 2019 after software engineers used Github to protest the so-called 996 work schedule (9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week) of tech giants JD, Xiaomi, and ByteDance.
  • E-commerce giant Pinduoduo also faced public ire regarding its alleged overwork culture after two employee deaths in early 2021.

Emma Lee (Li Xin) was TechNode's e-commerce and new retail reporter until June 2022, when she moved to Sixth Tone to cover technology and consumption. Get in touch with her via lixin@sixthtone.com or Twitter.