Jack Ma's 996 comments stoke heated debate over long work hours

April 17, 2019 10:24
Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma calls the 996 work schedule “a huge blessing” and said lots of people won't have a chance to do it even if they want to. Photo: Bloomberg

In China, "996" has become a buzz word. The term refers to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, the work schedule of many employees of technology firms in the country.

Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma has hailed 996, saying those who follow it are truly blessed. His comments, however, have stoked a heated public debate over the tech industry’s extreme-overtime culture.

It all started with a group of Chinese tech workers complaining about long work hours in the online code-sharing community GitHub in March.

The discussion was under the banner 996.ICU, which jokingly refers to the risk that if one follows such a schedule for some time, there is a good chance that person will end up in a hospital's intensive care unit.

It cannot be denied that the 996 work culture is very common in China’s internet and tech sector, especially in leading internet firms like Alibaba, Tencent, JD.com, and Huawei.

In these big-name companies, 996 is a given, and employees will feel singularly lucky if they are able to leave the office before 9 p.m. Some senior managers of these firms even post pictures of employees working in the office late at night on their social media accounts.

The 996 work schedule might be a bit controversial in today’s world since employees put a premium on the quality of life.

In an internal article, Alibaba’s founder Ma called the 996 schedule “a huge blessing” and said lots of people won't have a chance to do that even if they want to.

“I always work 12 hours a day, 12 months a year,” he said. “You should embrace a 12-hour working day when you join Alibaba. If you are really passionate about your job, 12 hours isn’t really that long.”

A 996 work schedule might be the norm in the talent-intensive internet and tech industry because the window of opportunity is often very narrow and extremely short.

There is a huge difference between the one that comes to the market first and the second one: it involves billions of dollars of business and valuation. 

As such, the best strategy is to develop a new product as fast as possible.

This overtime culture, in fact, is also common in US tech giants such as Google, Apple and Tesla.

From another perspective, it’s down to the individual’s choice. Those who value work-life balance more should perhaps go for less demanding jobs. Those who give priority to self-fulfillment, career advancement or money will probably see nothing wrong with 996.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 17

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist