Chinese workers are right to protest ‘996’ work culture

Perhaps you are wondering what is the significance of ‘996’? I was initially puzzled myself. Then I learnt that in China it refers to the hours and days of work demanded of employees by the big tech companies” 9am to 9pm, six days per week. That’s 72 hours of work per week. The employees have no time for a life.

As James Stanier asks in his OneZero article: “Is this the price it takes to get ahead in the booming Chinese economy, or is this a symptom of a hustle culture that has gotten way out of hand?”

Jack Ma is in favour of 996

Stanier presents an excellent example of the mindset behind ‘996’ in the shape of Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba. This one of the world’s largest online retail companies. Ma, who is worth billions, has got himself into hot water with workers following his comments on WeChat (a Chinese social media channel) about 996 culture.

Some of you may be stunned by Ma’s comments: “Many companies and many people don’t have the opportunity to work 996. If you don’t work 996 when you are young, when can you ever work 996? In this world, everyone wants success, wants a nice life, wants to be respected. Let me ask everyone, if you don’t put out more time and energy than others, how can you achieve the success you want?”

No doubt Marx and Engels and a few others would have had a suitable answer for him. But Ma isn’t alone in supporting this approach. Stanier has uncovered emails from other Chinese companies, such as JD.com and Youzan that show management’s preference for working employees to the limit. One email from JD.com stated, “underperforming employees are those who don’t keep “fighting” to do more work “regardless of performance, position, tenure, personal well-being issues or family reasons.” And at a Youzan company event, the management demanded that employees follow a 996 routine.

Workers protest online

However, it seems that workers are not blindly accepting this regime. A website called 996.ICU, hosted by Github. The site’s name refers to “work by 996, sick in Intensive Care Unit,” which sums up the burnout and ill health workers suffer by working a 72-hour week.

The website highlights the fact that Chinese labour laws prohibit more than eight hours of work per day and 44 hours per week in a standard contract. Anyone working more hours should be paid overtime. It has a list of Chinese companies using the 996 practice, including controversial Huawei.

In the West we take the right to strike or protest as a given. But in China things are not so supportive of workers. It seems that the conversations online about 996 are being censored and blocked by the big tech companies: try to access 996.ICU via Tencent’s QQ browser and a pop-up message will tell you it is a “malicious site.”

Don’t let 996 become a global practice

It is somewhat understandable that China’s tech companies adopted the 996 regime in order to have first advantage in the global market. Some of them have been so successful that newer companies follow their strategy, believing that is the sure route to success. But as Stanier describes it, “It utilizes sheer brute force to beat the competition and capture a market.” And, while these punishing hours may work with repetitive tasks, how can designers and programmers maintain a high level of quality work under such pressure. To my mind, this is a form of modern slavery that will eventually damage China’s tech companies and perhaps foment a greater rebellion than protests on the Internet.

And we must watch out for it moving to the West. There are those in Silicon Valley who admire Jack Ma and have voiced an opinion that 996 is, “the same work ethic that built America.” We must maintain our sanity, and focus on strategy and efficiency rather than imposing insane working hours on employees. As the saying goes, you can’t flog a dead horse, and that is what tech companies are heading towards by treating their workers like machinery.

Trump pushes China to the limit

Never mind Mueller’s report, Trump has his sights set on China this week, and as usual he has been tweeting about it. On 6th May he tweeted: “The United States has been losing, for many years, 600 to 800 Billion Dollars a year on Trade. With China we lose 500 Billion Dollars. Sorry, we’re not going to be doing that anymore!”

The President appears to be determined to escalate the US-China trade war and it appears to be ‘personal’, although he portrays it as a move in the national interest. He’s raising the trade tariff on Chinese imports to 25% this Friday, a large hike up from 10 percent.

Trump says that Chinese exports to the USA worth $200 billion will be slapped with this tariff. Furthermore, the same tariff will be imposed on other Chinese goods worth $325 billion, which are currently untaxed.

What effect has the announcement had?

Obviously there have been more than a few very miffed Chinese. And Chinese investors had a wobble, because they dumped stocks following the announcement. As a result, China’s major stock indexes plunged by the highest level since February 2016. Stock indexes also took a beating: the Shanghai Composite Index and the CSI 300 index fell by over 5 percent. Ken Cheung, senior Asian FX strategist at Mizuho Bank in Hong Kong told Reuters, “The market is re-pricing the situation, as investors had thought trade negotiations were coming to an end.”

Why escalate a trade war now?

Trump’s decision to raise the tensions between two of the world’s biggest economies came at a moment when the US economy is in boom mode. As Mark Emem writes at Forbes: “The non-farm payrolls jobs report which was released Friday indicated that the unemployment levels had fallen to 3.6 percent. This was the lowest figure since 1969.”

Some commentators have suggested that the positive state of the US economy has led the President to believe that the country is in such a strong position that he has the upper hand in any trade negotiations. One Twitter user, Jim Cramer tweeted: “Is this the art of the deal? Or a recognition that our economy is stronger than theirs is and we don’t need them???”

And to quote Trump from his book “The Art of the Deal”: “MY STYLE of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”

As Emem writes, Trump smells blood, because China has more to lose than the USA, therefore Trump is following his own philosophy of simply piling on the pressure wherever he can. It was thought that a trade deal between the two countries would have been agreed by the end of this week, but that looks unlikely now. And unless they agree a deal on 9th May, China will have to start paying the higher tariffs from the following day. That doesn’t leave much time for the negotiations, which are supposed to start on 8th May.

Will the talks collapse due to Trump’s game play, or will he get what he wants from China? We don’t have to wait long to find out.

Elon Musk turns into Trump on Twitter

Elon Musk of Tesla fame has a knack for getting his name in the headlines. There is barely a week goes by when his name doesn’t appear in the media somewhere, whether it is the mainstream media or more niche sectors of the press. This week he has taken on the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), because he is fed up of journalists’ criticisms of Tesla.

As always, Musk launches his attacks on Twitter. This time he presented the WSJ and its columnist Holman Jenkins as “sock puppets for “big oil.” In one tweet he asked his followers: “Please support my campaign to rebrand WSJ as sock puppets emoji.”

Francois Asure at CCN finds it very odd that Musk should behave somewhat like Trump on Twitter, suggesting that surely as a creative genius, Musk can do better than hurl “Trump-style epithets” at such an esteemed institution. Asure was referring to the way in which Trump branded Hillary Clinton, “Crooked Hillary”, and he also called Kim Jong-Un “Little Rocket Man.” Presumably he didn’t call him that when he met him at their famous summit meeting.

Instead, Musk appears to be adopting Trump’s tactics with the WSJ, simply because he doesn’t think the paper gives him fair coverage. It sounds a lot like Trump’s ongoing battle with The New York Times, CNN and his other perceived media enemies that he is sure tell lies about him. It often comes across as childish petulance on trump’s part, and Musk’s response to this WSJarticle, “Tesla Can’t Stop Dreaming Big.” The introduction reads: “Elon Musk’s plans to turn Tesla into a dominant automobile player have become a liability instead of an asset.” It is a less than glowing account of Tesla and the upheavals within the company. It also questions Musk’s leadership style and the way in which he uses his personality –“erratic, bombastic and alternative” –to draw attention to his brands.

As Asure remarks, “For the CEO to use Twitter to communicate with shareholders is about as unusual as a U.S. president turning to the social media platform to craft a message.” And as he rightly points out, the way in which Musk courts media attention is always likely to lead to some negative reviews. It is not difficult to see why the WSJ cites Musk as a liability for Tesla; he positions himself as bigger than his car brand. If you stopped the average man in the street, I’d say it is likely that they know more about what Musk gets up to than the engineering or design of a Tesla model.

And why did he choose to use “big oil” as his idea of an insult? Simply because his fan base is into electric cars, and oil, a fossil fuel, is the nemesis of those who are environmentally conscious. The oil industry probably doesn’t love Elon Musk much either, but as Asure points out, the oil industry often gets a “free pass” in the press, whereas the Tesla story is much more entertaining for any journalist.

And Musk often makes big claims that he can’t follow through on, which is more grist for the media’s mill. But, the point of this whole story is to illustrate how social media has become the battleground for characters like Musk and Trump. When their backs are against the wall they hit out in tweet form. And it often backfires on them, because calling people names makes things personal that should be treated with gravitas and diplomacy. However, neither Trump nor Musk possesses much of these qualities. While Musk’s tweets are entertaining, as are Trump’s, he is in danger of allowing his game playing to obliterate his Tesla brand; just as Trump’s outbursts have lowered the tone of the Office of the President of the United States.

Apple and Uber lagging in self-driving car league table

Self-driving cars are frequently in the news. The technology has progressed strongly, but we’re nowhere near ‘perfect’ yet. There are a significant number of companies working on test vehicles, especially in California, with the focus on improving safety and the cars’ software capabilities. As Niall McCarthy, a data analyst at Statista writes in Forbes, “Disengagements, and the reasons they occur, are a key part of that test process.” What are ‘disengagements’? A disengagement is what happens when the car’s software detects a problem, or the driver sees some danger coming, and is then able to take control of the car, so it is no longer self-driving.

According to data from the California DMV published by website The Last License Holder, test models experience different levels of disengagement. For example, Google’s Waymo is way out ahead of the pack when it comes to “flawless autonomy.” The company’s cars covered an impressive 1.27 million miles in 2018 but more impressively still, the test fleet drove 11,154 miles per disengagement.

Las year there were 28 companies actively testing self-driving models on public roads in California. This equated to 467 vehicles with 2,036,296 miles covered in autonomous mode, and with 143,720 disengagements occurring.

Google is doing well, statistically speaking. And it is specifically doing better than Apple or Uber, who are both engaged in developing autonomous cars. Niall McCarthy reports, “Uber’s cars clocked up nearly 27,000 miles with only 0.4 miles covered per disengagement. Similarly, Apple had 1.1 miles per disengagement with just under 80,000 miles covered in total. The second-best record of miles per disengagement goes to GM Cruise with 5,205 while Zoox comes in third with 1,923.”

It is indeed somewhat strange to see Uber and Apple trailing in last place on Statista’s league table, and Mercedes Benz is only one step up from them. Even Nissan is doing better with a position around the middle of the table. Indeed, they all have a way to go to catch up with the Waymo!