In recent years, the numbers “996” have come to symbolize the long hours many employees at Chinese tech companies work. That is, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. (More recently, a Chinese investor told Business Insider that the latest buzzword is “007” — from midnight to midnight, seven days a week — an obviously hyperbolic slogan intended to show a person, or startup’s, all-out devotion to hard work).
“It’s a totally different model from our utopian ‘unlimited vacation’ mindset,” said Mike Jaconi, CEO and founder of the mobile software platform Button. “In China, people are creating more value in less time than you see in the US.”
The notion that Chinese engineers work harder than their American counterparts, and that the cushy jobs of Silicon Valley tech workers might soon be fated for obscurity was expressed by legendary Silicon Valley investor Mike Moritz in a contentious op-ed published in the Financial Times earlier this year.
“The Chinese approach may seem unhealthy and unappealing to westerners[…]” wrote Moritz. “But for now it’s a fact of life…As the Chinese technology companies push ever harder outside the mainland, the habits of western companies will start to seem antique.”
It’s largely agreed by both Chinese and American investors that it’s easier to get things done in China, as well. After all, in cities like Shanghai, Shenzen, and Beijing, it’s common to take meetings after 6 p.m., schedule business engagements on weekends, and prioritize work outings over social events.
“People in China absolutely work harder than in the US,” said former president of Google China Kai Fu Lee in an interview with Business Insider. “Chinese entrepreneurs are blown away by how little people in the US work. They’ll visit Google [in Mountain View] at six or seven in the evening, and the parking lots are empty. They try to set up meetings on Saturday and Sunday, and no one will see them.”
While Lee said that he believes that these long hours inevitably burn people out, a Chinese engineer who spoke under the condition of anonymity said that he felt differently. In China, people are happy to work hard, he said.
There’s cultural roots to China’s work ethic as well, said Lee. “Many Chinese families have been poor for generations,” he said. “Their families look to them and say, ‘If you can be an entrepreneur and get rich, then our village will be saved.’ That’s a lot of pressure to put on one person. In China, you’ll often find that the people who love to work, who want to make it, who have this craving for success, often come from poor families.”
This tenacious work ethic might just be the key ingredient to push Chinese innovation ahead of the US in upcoming years, many investors and entrepreneurs agree. The sheer size of China’s engineering force, coupled with the its work ethic could spur greater innovation in a country that has historically been behind, said Button’s Jaconi. “They will build off the backs of their population, and it will create resource allocation for building the future,” he said.
Over the course of multiple conversations with Business Insider, many investors and entrepreneurs suggested that China is driving the future of AI, ecommerce, and mobile. While the country was once notorious for building off of technologies developed in the West, China’s burgeoning tech industry has reached a newfound maturity in recent years.
The conversation regarding China’s future has shifted as well, said Jacob Flowers, a business director who has worked in Shanghai’s tech industry for many years.”Previously, the geopolitical question was always: ‘What if China fails? What if through some large scale corporate malfeasance the whole system comes crashing down?'” said Flowers. “But now, the idea of western exceptionalism is being challenged. Now, people are asking: ‘What if China succeeds?'”
This success could largely be determined by the tenacity of the people who comprise the country’s workforce. Frederick Bravey, a marketing strategist at Shenzen-based venture firm Shenzen Ventures said that there’s a collectivist mentality that spurs the long work hours. You’ll seldom catch people complaining about working late nights or overtime, he said. “They push their employees to work hard, but they’re happy to do it,” he said. “They deeply care about progressing, and they want to show their work and their work ethic.”