China’s 996 ICU and Value Creation in Socialism

The struggle for the working day is at the core of the challenges to move beyond capitalism. Are we taking this matter seriously enough?

personally believe that working 996 is a great blessing, in many companies, many people want to work 996 but they don’t have the chance”. This is the beginning of “Teacher Ma”’s argument supporting 12-hours (9 to 9), 6 days a week labour schedules in the country.

Credit: Pablo Ampuero-Ruiz

His words were published in a speech delivered at an internal event in Alibaba on Thursday 11 April and made public through the company’s WeChat Public Account. “In this world — he continues — each one of us strives for success, we all wish to have a good life, we all want to be respected… I ask everybody: if you do not invest in surpassing other people’s dedication and time, how can you be able to achieve your desired success?”

There is no shortage of motivational videos online featuring Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma (马云). His message of dedication and devotion to work is usually directed to fellow entrepreneurs, using important platforms, such as the World Economic Forum to insist on the need to invest in young people. Whilst outside of his country, Mr Ma is praised for his business success, the moving story of a self-made man, and the accumulated wisdom of a life of being the underdog; in China, he is a revered teacher, an influential public intellectual, and most notably, a loyal party member. Jack Ma is a ‘red capitalist’, a role model for China’s entrepreneurs, acting with the blessing of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Recently, the 996.ICU repository in Microsoft’s GitHub helped to open a discussion about labour regimes in China. It has adopted the ironic “Intensive Care Unit” title as an epithet to raise awareness about the real world consequences of working in the country’s tech sector. The page in GitHub describes 996 as an “unofficial work schedule (9 a.m.-9p.m., 6 days per week) that has been gaining popularity”. While the country subscribes to the 40-hour week, workers on 996 can make up to 60 hours of labour a week, without proper compensation.

The 996 work schedule is the norm amongst tech companies. Software developing, gaming, classified advertisements, and online retailing platforms alike have adopted it. The trend seemed to have gained popularity after 58.com (a classified advertisements website) implemented it to manage extra workflow during peak season in September 2016. Today, tech giants such as Jingdong and Alibaba are in the eye of the storm, however, amongst smaller companies 996 has been the norm for the last couple of years. The extension of the practice is appalling: Alibaba, Baidu, Haier (appliances and electronics company), Huawei (9106 schedule), Midea (appliances and electronics company), Tencent (software company behind WeChat), Vivo (smartphones manufacturer), and Xiaomi (10106) are amongst the big names in the blacklist of companies promoting unpaid overtime.

Employees at tech companies are manifesting their discontent against these extended policies of exploitation. The repository provides the relevant legal background that restricts the working day to “8 hours a day and no more than 44 hours a week on average”. Regarding overtime, article 41 of the Labour Law of the People’s Republic of China stipulates that companies requiring an exceptional extension of the working day should do so in agreement with the labour union and the employees. In this case, it should not generally exceed one hour, and 3 hours per day only when the health of the workers can be guaranteed. Under no circumstances can overwork exceed 36 hours in a month. Given the generalised and continuous breaching of the law, there is sufficient ground to believe that 996 practices are accepted by the political leadership.

From an analytical standpoint, this issue raises two relevant questions about capitalism and China. At the forefront, there is a continuous struggle behind the extension of the working day, which is represented in the long history of strikes, legislation, and calls for enforcement of the regulation of the working day. And behind it, the problem of value creation in the capitalist formation and the challenges poised to socialist countries — like China — to rethink their political economy beyond capitalism.

Karl Marx dedicated a very long chapter of Capital to the history and logic behind capitalists’ striving for an increase of the working day in disregard of the workers’ complains and their well-being:

“Capital asks no questions about the length of life of labour-power. What interests it is purely and simply the maximum of labour power that can be set in motion in a working day. It attains this objective by shortening the life of labour-power, in the same way as a greedy farmer snatches more produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility”[1].

For Marx, the struggle for the working day goes well beyond a concern for the well-being of the workers. His argument about the surplus-value being created through labour unveiled the most pervasive aspects of the capitalist social formation. By extending the working day, top executives secure a higher profit, which is nothing more than unpaid labour. Hence, companies make use of rhetorical calls for a necessary increase in productivity, investment in technology, or compromise with the corporate ‘family’ as ways to remain ‘competitive’ and thus ‘maintain their workplaces’. Or like Jack Ma is quoted saying in a motivational video: “25 years old [people], don’t worry, any mistake is an income, it’s a wonderful revenue for you”.

The Chinese case is not the exception, but the rule in terms of the unfolding of the productive forces of capitalism. A recent article in the South China Morning Post quoted a senior executive of a Chinese telecommunications company arguing on these same lines. “We are now in the era of using one head to compete against one head”, he said, claiming to boost productivity and quality of output as a consequence of wage increases. Returning to Marx: “capital therefore has an immanent drive, and a constant tendency, towards increasing the productivity of labour, in order to cheapen commodities and, by cheapening commodities, to cheapen the worker himself” [2]. In this regard, given that surplus-value is extracted from unpaid labour, the extension of the working day is thus the primordial instrument for the goals of profit:

“The shortening of the working day, therefore, is by no means what is aimed at in capitalist production, when labour is economized by increasing its productivity. It is only the shortening of the labour-time necessary for the production of a definite quantity of commodities that is aimed at.” [3]

At this point, we reach one of the biggest questions of our time. After all our technological development, how come the working day has not been reduced but on the opposite, extended? Here, a liberal economist like Sir John Maynard Keynes, who in 1926 estimated that our generation would be able to work 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, finds commonplace with Karl Marx: it is a matter of political will.

Hence, the appearance of the working day as a politico-juridical issue conceals the key mechanisms of value creation in capitalism. “A machine which is not active in the labour process is useless” [4], claimed Marx. This tenet remains true for Chinese tech companies. Software cannot code itself but requires the skill of a professional who is partially paid in wages for his labour-power. It is the worker who transfers value into the commodity, whilst the machine remains as his tool, dead labour from a previous process of production.

The aforementioned process is not evident at first sight. In fact, it requires quite close attention to understand that machines by themselves do not create value, but absorb it from labour, who through the use of the machine then transfer it into the product. For the capitalist though, the production process “appears as the independent motion of what was originally constant value” [5], in other words, it appears as if the machines were operating by themselves. Consequently, many CEOs in tech industries — like Jack Ma — insist on investing in technology to increase productivity, celebrating its ‘life improving capabilities’ and ‘revolutionary nature’. And in fact, their account books might register better numbers afterwards, however, wages remain stagnant and the working day and workload increases. What is revealed then is that:

“In the market, as owner of the commodity ‘labour-power’, [t]he [worker] stood face to face with other owners of commodities, one owner against another owner. The contract by which he sold his labour-power to the capitalist proved in black and white, so to speak, that he was no ‘free-agent’, that the period of time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the period of time for which he is forced to sell it” [6]

The logic of capitalism is then realised in China, just like everywhere else. There is no exception, even though the country claims to strive for socialism. Given that Chairman Xi Jinping has established the objective of “fully building a modern socialist country” by 2050, what does this mean for labour, capital, and the valorisation process? I argue that not much. Returning one last time to Marx:

“What distinguishes the various economic formations of society — the distinction between for example a society based on slave-labour and a society based on wage-labour — is the form in which this surplus labour is in each case extorted from the immediate producer, the worker”[7]

For as much theorisation on the road to socialism undergoing in China these days, its focus has been unable to overcome the limitations of the Soviet framing. The CPC understands that its role in the leadership might be at risk as a consequence of the improvement in material conditions in the last 40 years, which have brought much wealth across Chinese society, but also raising inequalities. Hence, chairman Xi has called for an ideological turn, trying to mobilise society towards patriotic goals — the ‘Chinese Dream’ and the ‘Great National Rejuvenation’ — on the path to socialism. It is at this point that the problem becomes evident. After all the focus on the ‘governance of China’, there has been no room for a discussion on value creation beyond capitalism, stifling any serious effort behind a socialist formation.

In conclusion, the working day is the field of struggle for a different way of doing things. Its discussion should become more prominent in the agenda as a matter of public concern. At this point of history, the working day could be a common issue that brings together the exploited elements of society. Fighting for more free time and a better quality of life is the real challenge of a century that is bringing us instantaneous massive data transfer and artificial intelligence. Hoping that Jack Ma’s wish can become true to all of humanity:

“The world is so wonderful, why should I be the CEO of Alibaba all the time? I come into this world not to work, I want to come to this world to enjoy my life. I don’t want to die in my office, I want to die in the beaches”.

Notes:

  1. Marx, Karl. 1976. “Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I. London: Penguin Books. P. 376.
  2. Ibid., 436–7.
  3. Ibid., 437–8.
  4. Ibid., 289.
  5. Ibid., 322.
  6. Ibid., 415.
  7. Ibid., 325.

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Pablo Ampuero-Ruiz

Photographer and Social Anthropologist, working at the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR) of the University of Amsterdam. https://ampueroruiz.info