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A tech employee’s death has unleashed China’s anger towards its work culture


China’s youngest e-commerce giant is at the center of a firestorm.

Pinduoduo, a US-listed company known for its low-priced products, is facing a huge social media backlash after the death of one of its employees sparked heated online discussions about the brutal work culture in Chinese tech companies.

Discontent against excessive working hours is not new in China, but the fury this time targets big companies in general, with some decrying the “evil nature” of the capitalists who they say devour people’s lives to achieve corporate goals. This has further soured public sentiment towards Chinese big tech companies, whose influence is growing, prompting alarm and closer scrutiny in Beijing.

Pinduoduo, established in 2015 by former Google employee Colin Huang, had around 643 million monthly active users as of September, catching up fast with the nearly 900 million monthly active users on rival Alibaba’s mobile e-commerce platforms during the same period.

A female Pinduoduo employee suddenly collapsed when she was on her way home with colleagues after midnight on Dec. 29, according to a statement from the company (link in Chinese) yesterday (Jan. 4). Her surname was Zhang, she was born in 1998, and died after six hours of first aid and medical treatment, the statement said. It added: “We love you, and deeply miss you.”

The news angered many in China, and their rage was intensified by a separate message from an official Pinduoduo account on Zhihu, a Quora-like service, in response to a question about her death. “Look at those at the bottom [of society]. Which one of them does not exchange their lives for money? I always thought this is not a problem created by capital, but rather, a problem of society, these days we have to fight for our lives,” the comment said. Pinduoduo originally denied that it had posted the answer, but later backtracked and apologized, saying it firmly opposes the view expressed, which the company said was posted by a contractor without approval. A Pinduoduo spokesperson said the firm has no further comment on the issue.

For many people, however, the apology came too late. Under Pinduoduo’s statements on Weibo, the most upvoted response can be translated most accurately as “fuck off,” while others say they are fed up with tech companies’ exploitation of workers. “[The company] exhausted one worker to death, and now made another its scapegoat,” said one user. “The capitalists finally showed their evil nature. Capital is capital, it won’t value the lives of people at the bottom,” said another. Even Chinese state media weighed in, with Xinhua saying (link in Chinese) the “unhealthy overtime work culture needs to be curtailed.”

The episode is the latest sign of the Chinese public’s growing anger towards big Chinese corporates and tycoons, including Alibaba founder Jack Ma, who has gone from being called “Daddy Ma” to a “bloodsucking ghost” after he fell foul of Beijing for giving a bold speech on financial regulations in October.

Amid a general feeling of not being able to progress in life and a widening wealth gap, many in China have felt renewed pains about brutal working arrangements, such as the “996”(working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week) culture in many tech firms. In 2019, some tech workers protested against this culture by creating a page on GitHub to make a record of companies that have this arrangement.

Moreover, the tightening political environment in China also means few would dare to challenge the government directly about the unfair distribution of wealth, but would rather channel their frustration at safer targets, such as companies.

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