The debate about 996 (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) has been brewing in China for a while. The system has garnered so much notoriety that there is now a fairly comprehensive Wikipedia entry about its origins, practices and the controversies around it.

The debate reached high-intensity last couple of weeks. The trigger was the public support of the working hour system by a few famous companies, including Bai Ya of Youzan, which runs a SaaS platform for social ecommerce, and JD’s founder Richard Liu (who is facing much negative publicity himself).

Bai Ya touting 996 at Youzan

From Jack Ma

On Thursday, Jack Ma commented on 996 at an internal meeting, the gist of which was officially published yesterday.

Ma said that it is actually fortunate to be able to work 996. “In this world, each of us would hope to be successful, to live a good life, and to be respected. Let me ask you all. If you do not give extra effort and time compared to others, how do you realise the success that you hope to have?”

However, he cautions that not everyone on 996 has the chance to do something meaningful, valuable and fulfilling. “We have so many resources, such a big mission… “, he said. “Can we afford not to work hard?”

He mentioned it is very easy to find people who would only work 8 hours a day, in a fancy office with a nice canteen, and a good brand name to carry. “I hope you love what you do. If not, even 8 hours you will feel too long,” he said. “There is a reason why you chose Alibaba. Your 10 years would equal 20 years of many others.”

“We hope that every Alibaba individual will grow, in the way you think about problems, in the way you deal with challenges, and in your attitude towards life,” he added. “If you are here for 10 years, we are confident that you can go anywhere. However, to achieve this, you will need to give more than an ordinary person would.”

Scary Chinese companies 

People always think that Chinese tech companies are fierce, competitive and fast. In addition to 996, some have invented (mockingly) the concept of 007 – midnight to midnight, 7 days a week.

The core of the problem is the fierce competition and high expectations of stakeholders, particularly investors, that push the founders hard. Many founders would transfer this pressure to their employees.

Do note that while all companies move fast, most of them are actually not competitive and many not competent. But because so much venture capital was invested in a boom of many competing businesses, a lot of young people went into working for internet companies, particularly in tech, product and operations.

A typical morning at Xierqi Subway Station in Beijing, with many internet companies nearby

We know people who have been switching jobs five or six times because the companies they work for ran out of investors’ money and crashed. Strong founders might pick themselves up and try again – not every employee has that perseverance.

Many are disillusioned about the promises of options and eventual IPO – many others simply want to live a simple life.

Not everyone is as determined as those at Alibaba – rightly so.

And that’s why there aren’t 50,000 Alibabas in China.

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at [email protected].