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996: how and why spontaneous resistance to totalitarianism and death by overwork is growing in China

996: how and why spontaneous resistance to totalitarianism and death by overwork is growing in China 1

The grueling 996 work schedule, so named because it requires employees to work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, has persisted at Chinese companies for years, despite constant public outcry. Even Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma once called it a “huge blessing.” But what is a blessing for billionaires usually means working yourself to death (literally) for ordinary workers. However, some are trying to fight it.

The labor market in China is very saturated. Hence there is such huge competition in everything, starting from elementary school. It is not surprising that sometimes there is actually a queue of five people “beyond the fence” for one worker.

That’s why employers began to take advantage of this, because there really is a shortage of good jobs. Do you want to stay here? Work until 9 pm. And on Saturday, too, go on duty.

Very soon, such a 996 system became very widespread, spreading across China like a plague. This coincided with the beginning of the 2000s, the era of the heyday of startups and the opening of new IT companies.

The 996 term itself appeared in 2016, but existed ten years before that. This is how Xiaomi, Huawei, and Alibaba turned into giants. The 996 system gave China a big impetus in its development forward, making it a world leader. And then it began to slowly kill the country.

After six days of working 12 hours a day, even a young body does not have time to recover. Young people just lie at home all day, not wanting to communicate. Heart attacks have become more frequent, strokes have become a norm to much younger people. The main value for a country is still its population, and China has declared war on the 996 system.

A similar work schedule is the order of the day in South Korea, and what’s more, there the employer can simply remove an employee without explaining the reasons. In Japan, by the way, there are similar trends, with an emphasis on hikikomori as overtime is part of the work culture. And although the government tries to prohibit excessive overwork, kiroshi (death from fatigue in the workplace) still has its place in Japanese culture. And after a number of high-profile deaths of young employees in China in 2021, the fight against the 996 system began.

Black tea that achieves absolutely nothing

Xiang Huangzhong is a 35-year-old entrepreneur who founded the Sung Tea company, which has sales offices in more than 12 cities in China. The uniqueness of his brand is emphasized by the original names of the varieties of tea sold:

– “Black tea that has achieved absolutely nothing”;

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– “My friend’s life is better than this fruit tea”;

 and the best seller is matcha green “Sit back and wait to die.”

Xiang Huangzhong knows what he’s doing. His company’s target audience is young people from 18 to 30 years old, representatives of the increasingly popular youth subculture of sang, which means “mourning.” And they mourn for themselves, as for individuals who did not fit into and, moreover, refuse to fit into the harsh reality of Chinese totalitarianism.

The Sang is a protest against the Chinese version of “success”, in which a person is seen as an instrument to accelerate the state economy. Here are the main theses of this subculture:

– do not strive for social prestige;

– do not strive to improve the standard of living;

– don’t make a career;

– do not seek the approval of others.

Sang became the modern Chinese alternative to English punk. Just as British punks once opposed themselves to the establishment, modern Sang adherents are turning their backs on the state ideology of China, which the ruling party really does not like. That is why the authorities paid attention to the modest tea seller with an original brand.

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996: how and why spontaneous resistance to totalitarianism and death by overwork is growing in China 2
Refusal to work and a “decent” life becomes for some Chinese an ideological means of fighting for freedom.


These numbers are familiar to everyone in China, as they represent a popular work schedule: from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week. Such labor fanaticism is actively stimulated by the authorities, who need economic drive by any means. Jinping personally declared:

“Roll up your sleeves and work hard“.

And millions of Chinese are participating in this mad race to ensure themselves and their country the best place in the sun. The trouble is that they don’t do it voluntarily.

Gaokao is the world’s most difficult exam for university applicants. The month of June, when these exams take place, is nicknamed “black” by the Chinese. While accidents are the leading cause of teenage deaths worldwide, in China it is suicide. The 996 formula concerns not only the organization of work, but also the organization of study. After all, the one who successfully passes the exam will receive everything, the rest will get a bowl of rice and no prospects.

An ordinary Chinese school works like this, the children live in a boarding school and see their parents once a week. Classes last 10-12 hours a day, plus about 4 hours for homework. Children literally live in school to have a chance to pass an exam, enter a university and secure a prestigious job.

It is not surprising that by the age of 18, when the exam is over, many people no longer want anything. No work for a bright future, no prestige – just to be left alone. However, in a totalitarian state, a person is the property of the state, so the Communist Party of China accused the small tea trader Xiang Huangzhong of trading not in tea, but in “opium of the people” and sharply criticized the Sang subculture.

“I don’t want to show off, I want to lie down”

This is exactly the meme that has become popular among Chinese youth, who refuse to succeed in the name of the ambitions of their political elite. In an attempt to extinguish the flames of dangerous freethinking, the Communist Party published an article in its official newspaper on the sang issue and the activities of the Sung Tea Company.

“Give up Sung tea and choose the right path! – they began to appeal to broad sections of the population“.

It looks like someone at the top has got their butt on fire, since a real information war with Sang memes has unfolded on social networks and government-controlled media: the communists tried to prevent the spread of decadent sentiments with powerful propaganda of alternative slogans in the spirit of “Only positive! Only hardcore!”

An example is a social advertisement in which an 86-year-old Chinese scientist is set as a role model for young people, who even at this age continues to work 12 hours a day for the glory of PRC.

The fact that the emergence of the sang movement became a spontaneous and natural resistance to pressure from above is quite obvious. The question is whether the Chinese government will be able to draw some kind of lesson from this phenomenon, or will it ride its horse to death.

996 will make a machine out of a man and the only end for such a human battery is to be thrown into the trash after it stops working.

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