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A JD.com employee works at a company warehouse in Langfang, China. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)

Snapshots of China

Drowning in overtime

Are opponents of Chinese tech’s 72-hour workweeks really ‘slackers’?

In China, as the economy slows, wages stagnate, and layoffs increase, workers at Chinese tech companies are pushing back against a grueling work culture known as the “996.” 

The term refers to working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week.

In late March, a group of anonymous developers created a project called “996.icu” on the code-sharing platform GitHub to document which companies demand 996 schedules. The group hopes to change tech industry culture so that employees can “go home at 6 p.m. without feeling sorry.” The project’s name is a joke among developers about how working 996 only leads to the intensive care unit. 

The effort has clearly hit a nerve: It quickly became Github’s most bookmarked (or “starred”) project, with 190,000 stars. Chinese tech workers added more than 150 companies to the “blacklist” and captured screenshots of messages from their bosses asking them to work late. Companies on the blacklist include e-commerce site JD.com; ByteDance, creator of the TikTok video app; Huawei; and Alibaba.

Workers at a Shandong software firm claimed the company required employees to work 100 hours of overtime a month, according to The Guardian. This exceeds Chinese labor law’s maximum of 36 hours of overtime a month.

Last week, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma defended the company’s grueling work schedule in a WeChat post. “If you join Alibaba, you should get ready to work 12 hours a day. Otherwise why did you come to Alibaba? We don’t need those who comfortably work eight hours.” He added that workers should consider it a blessing to be able to work 996. Without it, he wrote, the Chinese economy is “very likely to lose vitality and impetus.”

Richard Liu, the founder of JD.com, claimed that when he first started the site, he woke up every two hours in order to provide customers with 24-hour service. He called people unwilling to work long hours “slackers.” And if the slacking continued, “JD will have no hope and the company will be heartlessly kicked out of the market! Slackers are not my brothers!”

The discussion has led to an editorial in the People’s Daily newspaper, a government mouthpiece: “The legitimacy of the 996 work system is clearly questionable, and it is almost impossible for individuals to say ‘no’ to this mechanism.”

Because GitHub’s open-source codes are essential to Chinese tech companies, censors have not blocked access to the website, and “996.icu” remains accessible inside China. Katt Gu, a lawyer, and Suji Yan, CEO of digital privacy startup Dimension, created an “Anti-996 License” on GitHub that would require Chinese tech companies to commit to complying with labor laws before they can use open-source software. More than 90 projects on GitHub have adopted the license. 

In interviews with Chinese software engineers and programmers, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post found that all of them said they couldn’t concentrate for 12 straight hours. One worker at ByteDance said she spent downtime watching videos, online shopping, and napping.

“Technology shouldn’t be a labor-intensive industry; it should be a creative industry,” Gu told the Post. “Creative people need to take a rest.”

Meanwhile in Taiwan

Billionaire Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn Technology Group, is planning a run for president in next year’s elections—and he claims to have the endorsement of the Chinese sea goddess Mazu. He will seek the nomination of the opposition Kuomintang Party, which advocates closer relations with China. Foxconn is an electronics giant, manufacturing 40 percent of all consumer electronics worldwide.

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Occupy Central leaders, from right, Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man, and Chu Yiu-ming shout slogans before entering a court in Hong Kong on Tuesday. (Kin Cheung/AP)

Snapshots of China

‘Now we are paying the price’

Hong Kong court convicts nine Umbrella Movement activists of ‘public nuisance’ crimes

On Tuesday, a Hong Kong court found nine democracy activists guilty of public nuisance for their roles in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, a ruling that deals a blow to civil society in the former British colony. Supporters of the activists showed up to West Kowloon Court this week carrying bright yellow umbrellas, a symbol of the 79-day protest that had called for universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

Among the nine activists were legal scholar Benny Tai, sociology professor Chan Kin-man, and the Rev. Chu Yiu-ming—co-founders of the Occupy Central movement, a forerunner to the Umbrella Movement. The court convicted the three of “conspiracy to commit public nuisance.” Tai and Chan were also convicted of “incitement to commit public nuisance.”

The court also convicted pro-democratic lawmakers Shiu Ka-chun and Tanya Chan, former student leaders Tommy Cheung and Eason Chung, and activist Raphael Wong of “incitement to commit public nuisance,” along with the unprecedented colonial-era charge of “incitement to incite public nuisance.” Former Democratic lawmaker Lee Wing-tat was convicted only of the former.

In his 268-page ruling, Judge Johnny Chan Jong-herng claimed that by blocking major roads in the city, “the unreasonableness of the obstruction was such that the significant and protected right to demonstrate should be displaced.” Many believe the charges have been politicized as the prosecution tried the group under Hong Kong’s common law system, which allows a maximum penalty of seven years in prison, compared with the maximum of three months under statutory law.

“Today’s guilty verdicts are a crushing blow for freedom of expression and peaceful protest in Hong Kong,” Man-kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said in a statement. “The government has used vague charges in their relentless persecution of the Umbrella Nine. The government is increasingly using prosecutions as a political tool to target peaceful activists.”

Tai, Chan Kin-man, and Chu, known as the “Occupy Trio,” created the Occupy Central group in 2013 to push for universal suffrage in the 2017 election of the chief executive, the top leader of Hong Kong. Occupy Central held an unofficial referendum in June 2014 that saw 792,000 voters turn up to vote on reform proposals. The government, though, ignored the people’s will: In August 2014, Beijing announced that Hong Kong residents had to choose from among two or three pro-Beijing candidates for chief executive. A few weeks later, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents flooded the streets to protest the law.

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Mainur Medetbek holds up a portrait of her detained husband at her home in a village outside Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Dec. 8, 2018. Medetbek says her husband was detained over a year ago in an internment camp in China. (Dake Kang/AP)

Snapshots of China

Striking the messenger

China is working to silence critics of its prisonlike re-education camps, with help from neighboring Kazakhstan

The thousands of videos posted on Kazakh human rights group Atajurt’s YouTube page follow a similar pattern: A distressed mother, brother, husband, or child holding up photos of a family member detained in re-education camps, reciting his or her ID number and recalling when and where the relative disappeared. The photos include chubby toddlers, grandfathers, young wives, and middle-aged men. 

These video testimonies provide a peek into a world the Chinese government wants to keep hidden—Xinjiang in western China, where authorities have thrown more than 1 million Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim ethnic minorities into re-education camps. Atajurt has helped survivors share their stories with the world, disproving China’s claims that officials have merely set up “vocational training centers” to reform extremist thoughts.

Yet in March, Kazakhstan officials detained Atajurt’s energetic leader, Serikzhan Bilash, on suspicion of “inciting ethnic hatred” and placed him under house arrest. Kazakh police raided the Atajurt office in Almaty and carted off video equipment and hard drives in trash bags. For 20 days, the office remained closed: Police finally handed the keys back to Atajurt volunteers Tuesday.  

Bilash, who was born in Xinjiang and is now a naturalized Kazakhstan citizen, always knew his work came at a great risk. When I spoke to him for my 2018 article “A Forgotten People?,” he expressed his concerns that China would come after him: “I’m afraid the Chinese Communist Party will ask our government to stop our organization and these people who have come from Xinjiang can’t tell the world what is going on.”

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