2 employee deaths and a viral video renew debate of China’s ‘996’ overwork culture

January 11, 2021, 10:13 AM UTC

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Controversy has rocked Chinese e-commerce company Pinduoduo since the start of 2021, with two employee deaths and a viral video from a former employee fomenting widespread online criticism of the company and renewing debate about the intense work culture across China’s tech industry.

On Dec. 29, a 23-year-old Pinduoduo employee collapsed and later died while walking home from work past midnight. Chinese authorities said they were investigating working conditions at Pinduoduo after the death.

On Saturday, less than two weeks later, an engineer surnamed Tan, who had been working for the company for about six months, died by suicide after taking leave from the firm and returning to his hometown.

“We feel profound sadness that we lost one of our employees to suicide. We are doing everything we can to support his family and loved ones during this difficult time,” a Pinduoduo spokesperson said in a statement. The company said it has established an “internal channel and dedicated team” to provide psychological counseling services to its employees in the wake of Tan’s death.

In addition to the two deaths, “Pinduoduo” was a trending topic on popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo on Monday because of a video posted by a former employee who claimed he was fired for sharing a photograph of an ambulance that came to collect a colleague who had collapsed at work. As of Monday afternoon, the video had more than 2.2 million likes on Weibo.

In the video, the employee, whose last name is Wang, said he went to work on the morning of Jan. 7 and saw a Pinduoduo employee being carried into an ambulance by two colleagues. Wang took a photo of the scene and posted it anonymously on Maimai, a LinkedIn-like social platform. He said Pinduoduo found out and fired him for posting the photo.

A current Pinduoduo employee countered Wang’s conclusion in a Thursday post on Maimai, saying that the employee Wang saw in the ambulance was suffering from an enterospasm and brought to hospital. A Pinduoduo spokesperson sent Fortune a screenshot of the post and said the employee’s claim was true.

Pinduoduo said in a statement that Wang was not fired for posting the ambulance photo on Maimai but for making “extreme remarks” on the platform in the past that violated internal company conduct rules.

In the Weibo video, Wang also claimed Pinduoduo puts harsh work requirements on employees, like requiring office workers to work 300 hours a month, an accusation Pinduoduo denied in a statement.

The death of the Pinduoduo employee who collapsed after leaving work sparked widespread online criticism of Pinduoduo’s work culture and the wider phenomenon of the punishing “996” working schedule that many Chinese tech companies tacitly employ. Wang’s video renewed the online discussion of 996, the notion that employees should work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.

Pinduoduo is a relative newcomer to China’s huge e-commerce market, which is dominated by Alibaba and JD.com, China’s two largest e-commerce companies. Low prices and unique product offerings, like group-buying, helped the company more than triple its revenue in 2017, two years after its founding.

Pinduoduo was valued at $23.8 billion when it debuted on the Nasdaq in 2018. It has a current market capitalization of $221 billion. Coronavirus lockdowns across China prompted a surge in online shopping last year, causing Pinduoduo’s share price to skyrocket from around $40 at the start of 2020 to almost $180 by the end of December, and making Pinduoduo founder Colin Huang China’s second-richest person. Since the first employee death on Dec. 29, Pinduoduo’s share price rose from $166 to $180 on Monday.

Chinese tech billionaires like Jack Ma and Richard Liu—who respectively founded Pinduoduo rivals Alibaba and JD.com—have endorsed 996 as necessary in the competitive industry. But opposition to the demanding schedule is growing, at least in the form of condemnation of 996 on Chinese social media.

Wang’s video had attracted more than 94,000 comments by Monday afternoon, and many of the top-voted comments—each with tens of thousands of likes—expressed support for him and criticized China’s overwork culture. Some of the comments suggested China’s younger workers would not accept the same intense working hours as older generations.

“Overthrowing 996 depends on the post-95 generation,” read one Weibo comment with nearly 3,000 likes, referring to people born after 1995. “The post-95 and post-00 generations have a lot of courage, and their logic isn’t bad,” read another comment on Wang’s video with more than 34,000 likes.