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3 Jun 2019

Jason Li, 88 Bar

How Chinese tech workers are organizing the online #996 labor movement, despite risks of censorship

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Among the millions of people employed in China's booming technology industry, a growing number are expressing discontent with the long hours…[A] group of Chinese tech workers published 996.ICU: an online letter and GitHub repository decrying a practice known as “996”, a shorthand for having to work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week…The letter read: “If you continue to tolerate the ‘996’ work schedule, you will risk your own health and might need to stay in an Intensive Care Unit someday.” In response to the letter, the CEOs of Alibaba, JD.com and Sogou all rose to publicly defend the practice, which only furthered its popularity worldwide…

In May 2019, more than 242,000 users starred (favorited) the #996 GitHub repository where the letter, memes and other documentation about the movement are hosted, expressing solidarity with China’s tech workers. When the 996 meme first made headlines abroad, many worried that the Chinese government would step in and force Microsoft, owner of GitHub, to block access to 996.ICU within China. Western press outlets even began lionizing Microsoft employees as protectors of free speech after a group of them published an online letter asking their company not to censor itself…

[In] a speech given by Guoqing Li, the CEO of e-commerce giant Dangdang…he criticized 996 work culture…in stark contrast to his tech CEO peers at Alibaba, JD.com and Sogou who defended the practice.

The images and discussion above are still readily accessible a month after the 996 meme became an international news story. That they survived this long and are still easy to find suggests that the authorities in China decided to let the discussion play out rather than stifle it through censorship. In fact, the government seems to be publicly denouncing 996 as well…

[T]here are at least several instances where Sina Weibo stepped in to moderate the conversation…the original post with the remixed PSA posters above was taken down, according to the creator, on grounds that it a) contained sensitive elements from its use of propaganda posters, and b) had become too popular and controversial…

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