China’s 996 Work Culture is Brutal, But Does It Work?

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Worker overwhelmed depicting the mental state of China's 996 Work Culture by GradSimple.

“Is it wrong to want a life outside of work?” asks an intern, their voice barely above a whisper.

Gasps ripple through the room. Faces turn, eyebrows shoot up, and a murmur of disbelief spreads like wildfire.

“Kids these days…” someone mutters with disdain.

I imagine Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, stepping forward, eyes narrowing as he addresses the intern: “It is your moral duty to work hard like there is no tomorrow, every single day. You should want to dedicate your life to rapid growth. Or are you okay with letting rivals win and the economy suffer?”

The intern’s face pales, their confidence deflating under the weight of Ma’s gaze. In the background, you can almost hear the ghostly voices of their ancestors, muttering and tutting, “To think we survived the Cultural Revolution for this.”

What is 996 Work Culture?

The term “996” refers to an unofficial yet widespread work schedule of 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week, prevalent in China’s tech and startup scene. 

Is this legally allowed in China you ask? No, it’s a violation of labor laws (wink wink). But 996 has a cult following among the top dogs of China’s biggest companies. 

How Did We Get Here?

Picture this: the late 1970s, China. Enter Deng Xiaoping. He rolled in with market reforms that gave China a major capitalist makeover, which led to the rise of tech giants like Alibaba, Tencent, and Huawei in the 1990s and 2000s.

The competition? Fierce. The growth? Rapid. The working hours? Absolutely nuts.

High-profile entrepreneurs like Jack Ma, our favorite workaholic cheerleader, was a big promoter of the 996 working schedule. He once said, “I personally think that being able to work 996 is a huge blessing. 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?” Richard Liu, CEO of JD.com, backed him up, saying, “We are not a company that can be comfortable with 8 hours of work a day.”

The Cultural Context

Growing up in Singapore, this intense work culture isn’t a surprise to me at all. My family, like many others, didn’t exactly get to enjoy work-life balance. Just 50 years ago, Singapore was a poor fishing village—we’re talking huts and river canoes. My distant relatives in China lived through the Cultural Revolution, and my Chinese counterparts in North America had to fight stereotypes and barriers just to get ahead. Grinding? That was just the way of life.

And what about success and self-worth? They were basically married to your achievements. It was all about one-upping everyone around you, turning life into a never-ending competition. Being ridiculously busy? Totally normal. Almost a badge of honor. You know you’re winning when you can’t remember when you last had free time, right?

As a kid, my friends were always chasing the next exam, the A+, the fancy school. Meanwhile, parents were busy showing off their kids’ achievements, wealth, and status like it was the Olympics of bragging. The mantra was simple: outwork and outshine everyone. This was drilled into us from a young age.

Success wasn’t just about being happy. Nope. It was about being better than everyone else—because who wants the shame of being average?

The Intrinsic Drive for a 996 Schedule

Now, let’s get one thing straight. If you’re starting your own thing, building a dream, or chasing a vision that truly matters to you, then yes, 996—or even 997—makes sense. The desire to push yourself to the limit should come from within, not because someone else imposed it on you. You should want to give it your all, and enjoy doing so—within reason.

The Problem with Expecting 996

However, when 996 is imposed by someone else, it’s a different story. Burnout, health issues, and even suicide…seems obvious, right? 

But let’s think from Jack Ma’s perspective for a moment.

9*9*6 = 486 vs 9*5*5 = 225

So, 996 = good. 9-to-5 = bad.

Oh wait, but we’re human.

But Does 996 Work?

Studies, like one from Stanford, show that working beyond 50 hours a week leads to a steep decline in productivity. Anything past 55 hours? Pointless. So, all those extra hours aren’t really adding value.

And I don’t know about you, but sitting for 12 hours at a desk will obliterate my back—it already does with 8, and I’m only 27. The health risks of sitting all day are real, from back pain to cardiovascular issues.

This is where Parkinson’s Law comes into play: work expands to fill the time available. In a 9-to-5, there’s already a lot of busy work—meetings that could be emails, mindless chit-chat, and extended breaks. The same applies to 996. Being physically present for 12 hours doesn’t mean you’re productive the whole time.

The Human Cost of 996

Do we live to work or work to live? If you have billionaire dreams, that’s cool. But if family, friends, or hobbies are priorities to you, working 12-hour days, 6 days a week, sounds soul-crushing.

Employee satisfaction is low, turnover is high, and mental health issues are rampant. No wonder some people decide to quit.

Is Work-Life Balance a Luxury?

It’s not a luxury if you want your employees to stick around. The Zoom generation definitely won’t.

We’ve realized that living to work doesn’t seem so great when you’re burnt out and unhappy. We’re not just 1s and 0s. We’re humans with lives outside of work.

As Jack Ma says: “If we find things we like, 996 is not a problem. If you don’t like [your work], every minute is torture.” 

So let’s find a balance, shall we?

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The human who runs the ship. Occasional writer, occasional web developer. Yes, this is the guy who hired a raccoon (if you know, you know).

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