The clock and the water mill, Karl Marx once wrote to Friedrich Engels, were two of the discoveries – alongside gunpowder and the printing press – that fostered the growth of the bourgeoisie. And when Marx published Das Kapital four years later, the long hours of toil for the working class would become one of the key concepts in his critique of capitalism.
Almost 155 years since the revolutionary German put pen to paper on his explosive manifesto, China’s Communist Party has been rekindling a few of its own Marxist credentials.
The most recent exhibit is another effort to lay down stricter rules on time management. This includes outlawing excessively long working hours in the internet sector and limiting the time that teenagers are allowed to play video games.
For many years, extended working hours have been part of the office culture for most of the nation’s fastest-growing internet firms – and were even mentioned as a source of pride by bosses like Jack Ma, who praised the practice as a “huge blessing”.
Known as ‘996’, or work from 9am to 9pm for 6 days a week, the punishing schedule makes other sectors look sleepy in comparison (we first mentioned the phenomenon in WiC449). Yet in the wake of the Chinese government’s recent efforts to rein in the influence of ‘big tech’, the 996 culture has come in for new scrutiny. There were early signs of official displeasure: the state media disparaged the long hours as a ‘counterproductive force’ in working against the goals of newly relaxed birth control policies, for instance (see WiC543). The reasoning seemed to be that overly-demanding hours left 996 techies less able (or willing) to fulfill their reproductive duties.
The pressure ratcheted up further last week when the Supreme People’s Court and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security published a lengthy policy statement about unreasonable overtime, declaring the 996 work schedule “illegal”.
Chinese labour law stipulates that daily work shifts shouldn’t exceed eight hours or surpass 44 hours on a weekly average. The legislation has been lightly enforced in the workplace – in part because it is hard to police compliance in an economy as complex and fast-growing as China’s – although the much-discussed 996 regime, which equates to 72 hours a week, is one of the clearest violations.
In the statement, the Supreme Court tried to clarify the legal standards by outlining 10 cases that had gone to court on disputes over working hours and overtime pay. In one instance, a tech firm was ruled to have infringed labour law by asking employees to sign agreements to forgo any overtime payment. In another, a courier firm was fined Rmb8,000 ($1,235) for terminating an employee’s contract after his probation because he refused to work overtime hours.
“There is nothing wrong with advocating working hard, but it cannot be a shield for employers to evade [their] legal responsibilities,” the statement warns.
Labour disputes over working hours and overtime pay have been on the rise, ThePaper.cn noted, and civil litigation could now increase further now, especially for tech firms. Indeed, in reaction to the policy headwinds, most of the internet majors have tried to show willingness to dial down their 996 cultures. For instance, a unit at Tencent has introduced the ‘Healthy Day’ concept, where no one has to work beyond 6pm on Wednesdays (see WiC547). But the latest ruling suggests that tech bosses will need to go further than limited responses like this. If the government enforces the directives, working hours will need to be pared back or companies will risk formal censure.
As for Tencent, another pressing concern for investors was a separate government decision that could stymie sales in a key division: a move to prevent young people spending too much time playing the Shenzhen firm’s popular online video games like Honor of Kings.
This week the National Press and Publication Administration published another new set of regulations instructing internet firms that under-18s could only play online games between 8pm and 9pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, as well as on public holidays.
Previous restrictions had tried to limit playing time for under-18s to 1.5 hours on weekdays and three hours on holidays. But the new directive means that minors should not play online games at all during the school week and are restricted to total game time of three hours every seven days.
Because real identities and ID cards have to be provided by players, the policing of the new initiative should be straightforward, with software that locks minors out of games automatically once they’ve used up their gaming ration.
Early last month the Economic Information Daily published a series of articles that described video games as “spiritual opium”, blaming them for causing harm to the country’s teenagers. The Xinhua-run newspaper even singled out Tencent as the main source of the problem (an accusation that caused the firm’s stock price to plunge).
The targeting may have overstepped the mark – or perhaps the stock sell-off alarmed the government – as the article was soon deleted from Economic Information Daily’s website and its social media accounts. And this week Tencent responded to the latest investor concerns by pointing out that children make up a small section of paying customers because of the existing restrictions, with revenue from minors bringing less than 3% of its gross gaming receipts in China.
“Since 2017, Tencent has explored and applied various new technologies and functions for the protection of minors,” it said in a statement. “That will continue, as Tencent strictly abides by and actively implements the latest requirements from Chinese authorities.”
Media outlets in the West have been reporting how the new restrictions on gaming time for children are contentious. Opinion seems polarised among Chinese parents. Some have applauded the government’s decision, given the rise in gaming addiction among young people and the attendant health risks (poor eyesight and obesity, it is claimed). Others believe it is up to parents – and not the government – to take responsibility for how much time that children spend on out-of-school activities, including playing video games.
Opinion hasn’t been as divided among the under-18s, says Reuters, with furious protests having fomented online over the new regime.
“This group of grandfathers and uncles who make these rules and regulations, have you ever played games? Do you understand that the best age for eSports players is in their teens?” was one of the comments on Sina Weibo. “Sexual consent at 14; at 16 you can go out to work; but you have to be 18 to play games? This is really a joke,” another young netizen fumed.
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