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  • Writer's pictureBianca

Toxic Work Culture in China: An Expat's Perspective

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

So, picture this: 5 years ago, I took the plunge and moved to China to teach English. Exciting, right? Little did I know, I was about to get taken on a rollercoaster ride through China's work culture. I was working at a training center, so my hours were far from the standard work schedule as I had different work days (Friday-Tuesday as opposed to Monday-Friday) as well as working hours (2-8pm weekdays and 9-6pm weekends).

Getting Acquainted with Chinese Work Culture

The 996-Work Culture

In China, the work ethic is no joke! Long hours are the norm, and the famous 996-work culture is more than just a catchphrase. 996 refers to the lifestyle of working 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. Many Chinese companies unofficially endorse the 996 lifestyle, despite it not being the national working hours (work days are officially Monday-Friday and there is no requirement to work 6 days a week from an official standpoint).


China's tech sector, led by giants like Alibaba, has championed the 996 mantra. Even Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, has been known to endorse it. While this intense schedule might sound like a nightmare to those of use from western countries like the United States, it's surprisingly common here. The idea is simple: longer hours equal more productivity, right? Well, it's a huge blessing for the companies' bottom line, but it can also be a curse for work-life balance and recently workers have been fighting back against this toxic work culture, saying that burnout is inevitable.

laptop on a table with flowers in the backdrop
Working from my hotel in Sanya

Overtime Culture and Social Pressure

China is also infamous for its overtime culture. Overtime hours are practically expected, and putting in extra time at the office is seen as a display of dedication. In some places, it's almost a competition to clock the longest hours. The peer pressure is real, and it can feel like you're in a constant race to prove your commitment. It's not uncommon to find yourself caught up in the whirlwind of social media updates showcasing workaholic achievements.


The Legal Landscape: Labor Laws and Guidelines

Now, let's talk about the legal side of things. China's labor laws are quite comprehensive, thanks to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. The national working hour system is in place, but in reality, many Chinese companies dance around the edges of these regulations. Overtime work is technically supposed to come with extra pay, and there's a 40-hour work week guideline. However, enforcement can be lax, and disputes can arise.


Another thing I've previously talked about here is the tendency for employers in China to hold your work permit which you will need if you ever decide to switch companies - do you see where I'm going with this? It is unfortunately super common for a Chinese company to "retaliate" when a foreign employee moves to a new company (even if you left on good terms!). In these cases, they hold your work permit hostage until you pay a large fee, work for a few extra months, or some other condition they demand of you. This was one of my least favorite things about working in China as it happened FREQUENTLY. The only way to avoid this is to make sure when you start your position that you have your work permit (as well as all other documents needed for a visa) in your possession.


Local Authorities and the Enforcement Challenge

Local authorities are responsible for enforcing labor laws, but the effectiveness varies from region to region. In my experience, navigating the legal landscape in China can be challenging, especially with the language barrier. It's crucial to be aware of your rights and to seek advice when needed. The police are usually the first option for resolving disputes, and they can intimidate your employer into resolving things "amicably." However, many companies have what is known as guanxi which essentially means that they have strong connections in high places. If they have a high enough guanxi, the police will often say that their hands are tied, in which case you move onto:


Navigating Labor Disputes and Court Decisions

When it comes to labor disputes, the labor bureau plays a significant role. You can always get your documents back from your employer if you go the legal route, however the process is typically drawn out and doesn't reach a resolution for up to 90 business days (ask me how I know). It usually winds up being more efficient to give into your company's demands to ensure a smooth transition to your new company.


When dealing with the labor bureau it is best to have your new company help out (if they hire foreigners often, they are used to this, trust me! don't try to deal with this on your own). They can provide either a lawyer or just someone who is meant to negotiate on your behalf. Usually the negotiator gets things settled far quicker than the labor bureau and for a fraction of the cost. These costs are typically absorbed by the new company, but don't be surprised if when it comes time to leave the new company, you find yourself in the same predicament...


Challenges Faced by Expats

As an outsider experiencing work life in a culture completely different from your own can be a bit overwhelming. In addition to the toxic work culture in China, there are some issues that are unique to foreign employees.

futuristic symmetrical shelves of books
The famous Zhongshuge bookstore in Chongqing

Work Permit Woes

I explained above the practice of employers holding foreigners' work permits, but there are other problems that arise when applying for a new work permit even if you are in possession of your previous one. There's one labor law in particular that gets foreigners in trouble and it's the fact that they need to receive a "release letter" from their previous employer. This letter essentially states that you were an employee of said company and specifies the dates of employment. You cannot get a new work permit without this release letter. Unfortunately, because of how strict this specific labor law is, employers take advantage and withhold this document, knowing that you will not be able to obtain employment elsewhere. And no, you can't just forge a release letter because it requires the company's official stamp (every company in China has a red stamp specific to them to be used for official purposes). You just have to negotiate patiently and hope for a speedy release letter delivery.


Culture Clash

Another issue is the clash between foreign and Chinese workers. A lot of foreigners are very resistant to the many demands posed by Chinese companies and lack of work-life balance. In general, foreigners tend to push back more than their Chinese counterparts and often employers do give in. This results in growing disparities between the foreign and local employees. Some examples include but are not limited to shorter-term contracts with Chinese employees being tied to 3 year contracts and foreigners typically on a 1-year contract giving them more flexibility, foreigners working 5 days a week while their local coworkers work 6, and even foreign employees making more money than their Chinese colleagues. 


The disparity in treatment between foreign and Chinese employees is can lead to tensions between the two groups in the work place. While I do want to say that this unequal treatment isn't the standard for all companies, it is far from being uncommon and contributes to creating an uncomfortable work place, if not a completely toxic work culture.

people in suits walking up a mall flight of stairs inside an office building
My college classmates on their way to a meeting

The Evolution of China's Work Culture

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the importance of work-life balance in China. In the past several years, Chinese social media has been bringing to light the toxicity of 996 culture and the detriment it brings to mental health. The Chinese government has also taken steps to address the issue, with the Supreme People's Court issuing further guidelines to curb excessive working hours.


Looking Forward: A Glimpse into the Future

What's on the horizon for China's work culture? Only time will tell. With social media calling to attention he burnout that the working public is facing, there's a possibility that the work culture will evolve. For now, though, it's still a wild ride of long hours, intense competition, and technological innovation.

 

My first time working in China's fast-paced environment has been nothing short of an adventure. From the bustling tech companies to the late-night office hours, it's a unique experience that has its highs and lows. As a 20-something-year-old navigating this intense work culture, I've learned to embrace the challenges, celebrate the victories, and strive for that elusive work-life balance. Cheers to the journey, and may your career in China be as fulfilling as it was for me!

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1 Comment


Luca M
Luca M
Nov 21, 2023

Nice! keep the good articles coming

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