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Abandoning 996: 200M Chinese People Opt for Flexible Employment

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Around 200 million Chinese people landed flexible jobs in 2021, said Ning Jizhe, head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, in a press conference last month.

Ning gave the example that over 1.6 million people held jobs in livestreaming — a massive industry in China and well-known for operating outside the typical employer-employee labor force.

Flexible employment, a loosely-defined umbrella term, encompasses self-employment, part-time jobs, and other novel work types. Some of the career options that fit the description include freelancers, rideshare drivers, and bloggers. 

Didi

A Chinese taxi driver uses the taxi-hailing app Didi while driving in Beijing. Image via Depositphotos

According to a report on flexible employment in China conducted by iResearch Consulting Group, a flexible schedule is one of the top reasons why job-seekers zero in on this type of work.

“Gen Zers are digital natives with strong self-awareness and have a unique understanding of the way and content of their employment. So more of them will opt for flexible work in order to be their own boss,” the report reads. 

In the same vein, the Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey indicates flexibility and adaptability are the primary workplace desires for this specific demographic worldwide.

“Gen Zers are digital natives with strong self-awareness and have a unique understanding of the way and content of their employment. So more of them will opt for flexible work in order to be their own boss”

— 2021 China Flexible Employment Market Development Research Report

Flexible work arrangements project a completely different image to that of China’s onerous overwork culture, also known as “996, which sometimes requires employees to work from 9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week.

On Wednesday, an employee of Bytedance, the parent company of popular apps TikTok and Douyin, died after a workout at the gym. He was only in his 20s.

Though the reason for his sudden death has not been disclosed, the tragedy has brought Chinese tech companies, some of the worst exemplars of overwork culture, under public scrutiny once again. 

In January 2021, a 22-year-old employee of Chinese ecommerce company Pingduoduo collapsed on her walk home after a long day. She later died at the hospital, which induced an investigation into Pingduoduo’s labor conditions by local authorities and further stoked public debate on China’s hypercompetitive work culture. 

As the notorious 996 culture has received backlash, many have mobilized in opposition of excessive work schedules. Four recent graduates created a spreadsheet to encourage people to share their working hours, initiating a ‘Workers Lives Matter‘ campaign in October of 2021.

While the issue of extreme working conditions is far from settled, it appears increased discourse around the matter might be having some effect: Last week, top-tier travel agency Trip.com Group set a precedent among large companies in China by deciding to adopt a hybrid work policy.

Cover image via Depositphotos

Runjie Wang
    Runjie is interested in both textual and contextual films (e.g. cinema architecture, film culture) and the “mediatized” society and culture. He also considers himself an aviation geek. He holds an MA with an emphasis in humanities and cinema from the University of Chicago, and his writings have appeared in academic journals and local newspapers and magazines in the US.
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