- Tech firms in China typically expect their employees to work a so-called 996 schedule: 9am to 9pm, six days a week.
- The average tenure for tech workers in Silicon Valley is 3.65 years, whereas in Chinese tech firms the figure is less than 2.6 years once you take state telcos out of the equation.
- CB Insights found that “burnout” was the primary cause of 8 per cent of the 101 start-up failures it analysed.
He is so focused on keeping his start-up alive that he can’t sleep at night. She was asked in an interview if she would be willing to break up with her boyfriend for the job. A young couple want their own family but have no energy for sex after work.
These are some of the struggles faced by the hundreds of thousands of young workers in China’s tech industry like Yu Haoran, a 26-year-old computer science major, who in 2014 founded Jisuanke, a start-up in Beijing’s hi-tech Zhongguancun district to teach kids coding.
Yu has worked nights and weekends to grow his business from a 10-coder team to one with a 200 million yuan (US$29.8 million) valuation thanks to venture capital backing. But the personal price he pays is chronic insomnia, sometimes getting just two hours of sleep every night.
“I haven’t really thought of living a life,” Yu said, referring to his entrepreneurial existence. “Because I’m building something, and before I finish it, there won’t be anything else on my mind.”
Last year China churned out four new billionaires every week, with technology being the biggest driver of new wealth, followed by real estate, according to the Hurun Report.
For every success story there are thousands of wannabes who toil away, hoping to be the next Jack Ma, who built Alibaba Group Holding, parent company of the South China Morning Post, from a business in his own apartment to the country’s e-commerce giant.
The Post spoke to tech workers in Zhongguancun and other parts of Beijing for a snapshot of what life is really like living in China’s Silicon Valley, as these tech hubs – home to internet giants like Baidu, Meituan and ByteDance – have been dubbed.
In China’s tech industry, young employees and entrepreneurs constantly battle burnout at work, while worrying about bigger things like career ceilings, lay-offs and a sexist work environment.
Some eventually come to the realisation that they need to strike a better work-life balance for the sake of their own health. Others are trying to figure a way out of an opportunistic tech world full of hot money and hype.
Employees at major tech companies interviewed for this article asked to be identified only by their surnames because they were not authorised to speak publicly about their jobs.
Once a graveyard for eunuchs in feudal China, Zhongguancun is located inside the northwestern stretch of Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road, one of the major highways that encircle the Chinese capital.
Over the past three decades the area has seen the rise of successive generations of Chinese tech and internet start-ups, from computer maker Lenovo to news portal Sina and ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing. By the local government’s account, as many as 80 tech start-ups are born in Zhongguancun every day.
China’s innovation prowess lies not in one valley but in many hubs
Yu, the Jisuanke founder, set up shop at a co-working space in the basement of one of Zhongguancun’s office buildings, in part because he could more easily tap talent from top Chinese academic institutions nearby like Tsinghua University.
The office is within walking distance of his two-bedroom rental apartment, where he offers free bunk beds to student interns working at his company.
In recent years, Zhongguancun has become crowded and expensive, spurring bigger companies to move their offices to more remote areas, which in turn have become Beijing’s newest tech hubs.
One is Xierqi in the city’s northwest, where companies including Baidu, Sina, NetEase and Didi have built campuses. Another is Wangjing on Beijing’s northeastern edge, now home to the delivery giant Meituan Dianping, dating app Momo and the regional headquarters of Alibaba Group Holding.
That has created a new problem for workers: the daily commute.
Chinese often joke online that the real bottleneck in the country’s internet development is the traffic jam at Houchang Village Road, a four-lane street flanked by the sprawling campuses of major tech companies in the fringe area of Xierqi. There, infrastructure development is way behind the growth of the tech companies.
Last year a summer rainstorm in Beijing turned Xierqi’s streets into rivers. One photo, of a calm-looking commuter checking his phone while sitting on top of a garbage bin to escape the flooded road, went viral.
Yang, a 33-year-old Beijing native who lives with his wife and parents, works as a product manager in an internet company in Xierqi. Every day he gets up at 6am for a two-and-a-half-hour commute, taking two different subway lines and a shuttle bus.
“As long as there’s a seat, I can fall asleep no matter how bumpy or crowded it is,” he said.
Others opt to avoid the commuting nightmare altogether. Bu, a marketing specialist in her 20s, recently moved into a decades-old complex in Xierqi, a 10-minute walk from her employer.
She shares a three-bedroom apartment with two other women working in the area, each paying 4,000 yuan (US$598) a month to cover the rent. Because of high demand, the rent is even more than what she paid for her old apartment in the downtown area of Beijing’s trendy eastern Chaoyang district.
Another trade-off is that Bu no longer has easy access to coffee shops, decent restaurants and art exhibitions – all the things she loved when living downtown.
“I feel like I’m exiled from Beijing,” she said.
Tech firms in China typically expect their employees to work long hours to prove their dedication. That means a so-called 996 schedule: 9am to 9pm, six days a week.
Zhongguancun-based ByteDance, which runs the popular short video app TikTok, has eased that a bit by introducing a “big/small week” policy, where most of its 6,000 employees work a six-day week every second week.
Yang’s wife, 29, works as a product manager in Wangjing, once known as Koreatown. By the time the couple get home from their long workday, it is already close to midnight.
They have been trying for months to conceive a child but are too tired for sex on weekdays. “I hope we can make faster progress,” said Yang, who is worried that after his wife turns 30 she will find it harder to get pregnant.
The boundaries between work and private life are further blurred by company perks like free meals and shuttles, on-site gyms and barber shops, as well as many other entertainment and leisure options.
Although Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook offer similar benefits, some Chinese tech workers say they feel exploited.
“They want to save all the troubles in your life,” said Wang, a 26-year-old product manager, whose employer in Xierqi offers her free manicures, massages and phone screen protectors, among other things. “It’s like saying, don’t think about anything else, just work.”
Such “benefits” do not make employees stay longer. The average tenure for tech workers in Silicon Valley is 3.65 years, whereas in Chinese tech firms, state telecoms operators excluded, the figure is less than 2.6 years, according to data from Maimai, the Chinese equivalent of LinkedIn.
There are even cases of premature deaths of young tech workers in China, which local media and social media posts attributed to excessive workloads. In 2015, Li Junming, a developer with social media giant Tencent, collapsed and died while taking a walk with his pregnant wife.
A year later, Jin Bo, 34, deputy chief editor of the Tianya online forum, suffered fatal cardiac arrest at a subway station in Beijing. Last year, a 25-year-old employee at Shenzhen-based drone maker DJI also died from cardiac arrest.
A DJI spokeswoman said the company had no comment out of respect for a request by the family of the deceased worker to keep the matter private. Tencent and Tianya did not respond to requests for comment.
If the culture of excessively long hours stems from start-ups chasing scale, backed by large sums of venture capital cash and investors eager for results, those circumstances have changed over the past year.
By the end of 2018, many tech companies were announcing plans to cut benefits, bonuses and jobs as they hunkered down amid the country’s worst economic slowdown in nearly three decades.
In January, China’s venture capital deals totalled $US4.3 billion ($A6.0 billion), down nearly 70 per cent from a year ago, according to data from research firm Zero2IPO.
One cautionary tale of the end of the easy-money days has been bike-sharing firm Ofo. Founded in 2014 in Zhongguancun, the once high-flying start-up raised $US2.2 billion in nine funding rounds in less than four years, but is now facing a cash crunch after thousands of users demanded their deposits back, forcing it to cut back on operations amid fierce competition.
“If you look at China, every local government gives you funds, and every city has its own incubators and tech hubs, but nobody knows if they are good,” said Jelte Wingender, a senior manager at Innoway, a government-backed incubator in Zhongguancun. In the future, Wingender said there needed to be fewer entrepreneurs, but “more concentrated and better”.
“One thing Chinese founders or unicorns haven’t figured out is how to become a sustainable business. If you continue those [long hours] for 10 years, people will have no personal life any more, they will have no kids, they will go crazy,” Wingender said.
Yang is pondering what comes next. With more than 10 years of experience, he now holds a mid-level position at a top-tier internet company but has reached a career ceiling. He compares himself to a construction worker, who can earn good money due to high work intensity but can easily be replaced by younger, cheaper labour.
Yang has thought about running a home-based business so he can spend more time with his future children. “I’m willing to fully support my wife’s career and take care of the family,” he said.
In a new study, CB Insights found that “burnout” was the primary cause of 8 per cent of the 101 start-up failures it analysed. “The ability to cut your losses where necessary and re-direct your efforts when you see a dead end was deemed important to succeeding and avoiding burnout,” the report said.
Those who choose to remain in the tech industry have their own battles to fight.
Andy Xu Kaiqiang, a coder turned COO at Wangjing-based robotic start-up Vincross, is learning how to be a better team leader – but felt he had to start with his own appearance. After going on a diet and signing up for a weekly Tango class, the 24-year-old lost 20 kilograms in six months. “I can’t lose face for our company,” he said.
Female tech workers have an even tougher time. For example, coders are often stereotyped as socially awkward guys who wear buzzcuts, a pair of plastic-framed glasses, and checked shirts for all occasions.
There are many derogatory slang words for software developers in China, such as manong, which literally means “coding farmers”, and chengxuyuan, a play on words that translates to “programming apes.”
Ren, a 24-year-old coder based in Xierqi, said she had has turned down opportunities from companies demanding a 996 schedule and said no to jobs where interviewers asked questions like, “Is it too hard for a girl to be a developer?” and “Are you ready to break up with your boyfriend?”
Such blatant sexism – from job ads preferring males to marketing campaigns discriminating against women – is still rife at Chinese tech companies despite some efforts to change in recent years.
As for Yu, the coding education start-up founder, he is starting to make small changes to his lifestyle, like running on a treadmill and making breakfast at home every day. On a recent afternoon, he bought his first piece of clothing in years, a navy blue shirt from the Japanese brand Uniqlo.
The next item on his shopping list, though, is already popular in Zhongguancun. He plans to get a hoverboard to save him some time on his way to work.
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