Lijia Zhang: China’s ‘996’ overwork culture show how vulnerable tech workers have become

Lijia Zhang

Lijia Zhang, author of Socialism is Great, opined that the Chinese government should step in to protect workers, end the 996 regime endemic in tech giants, and stop capitalism in its coldest form from being practised in socialist China.

What happened was the invasion of market economy and cold-hearted capitalism. Reforms led China’s labour system to depart from the socialist ethos of the past. The iron rice bowl has been replaced – with contract labour and salaries connected to performance.

The prevalence of the 996 overwork culture marks the triumph of powerful tech bosses over their vulnerable workers. Many Chinese tech companies have business models that are not based on unique propositions, so they rely on cost and speed. To get ahead of the competition, many tech bosses demand long hours.


Young people are attracted to tech companies for the prestige and better pay. On average, 996 companies pay their workers 1.5-2 times more than so-called 955 companies, where the working hours are 9am to 5pm, five days a week.

But resentment has been brewing against the overtime culture. In March 2019, Chinese tech workers launched an anti-996 online protest via GitHub, a code-sharing website. The project, called 996.ICU (as in “intensive care unit”), collected grievances against China’s tech companies and compiled a list of 176 which have had the 996 overwork culture reported at some point, including Alibaba, 58.comJD.com, Youzan, Huawei Technologies Co, and ByteDance. Chinese media joined the choir of criticism, but no concrete action was taken and 996 arrangements continue.

Labour laws must be strengthened and vague legal terms avoided. For example, a 1995 State Council revision of working hours stipulates that where companies are unable to give their employees their two days of weekend rest, flexible days off may be arranged in light of actual conditions. Some companies take this as an excuse to not give their workers the weekends off.

In many developed countries, labour unions try to protect workers’ interests. In China, unions exist but primarily in name only. Perhaps the authorities can give labour unions some space and allow them to play their role in easing the tension between employers and employees.

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Lijia Zhang

Lijia Zhangskilled journalist, author, social commentator and speaker comes from humble beginnings. Born and raised on the banks of the Yangtze River, Lijia Zhang was pulled out of school  at the age of 16 to work at a factory that produced inter-continental missiles.  As an escape route, she taught herself English and dared to pursue her childhood dream of studying journalism.

In her long career as a journalists, Lijia Zhang’s features, features, often very human stories about the plight of China’s “little people”, have been published in South China Morning Post, Far Eastern Economic Review, Japan Times, The Independent, The Observer, Newsweek and The New York Times. Her widely acclaimed English-language memoir, “Socialism is Great!” detailed her journey from being a rocket factory girl to a prominent social commentator. Her inspiring tale of great transformation and views on China through the years have been featured on the BBC, Channel 4, ABC (Australian) CNN, CBS and National Public Radio, among others.

Lijia Zhang has been described by Tony Blair as “an inspiring example of promoting the understanding between China and Britain” in his keynote speech during his state visit to China (1998), has been voted one of the “40 Beijing heroes” by TimeOut Beijing (October, 2008), a subject of a BBC documentary Peschardts People (May 2009) and the recipient of the prestigious International Writer’s Program, University of Iowa, sponsored by the US State Department (2009).

Lijia Zhang‘s speaking  topics include:

  • “Socialism is Great!”
  • Understanding Business Culture
  • Developing a Better Understanding of China’s Past to Better Comprehend Present Day Reforms
  • The Changing Role of Women in China
  • Frog in a Well

Contact us if you would like Lijia Zhang to speak at your next event.