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Which work ethic are you?

MORE DAYS OFF? YAY! Ambitious young adults in China are hoping their gruelling schedules will become lighter after video-sharing site Kuaishou recently dropped its compulsory overtime requirement. The Douyin/ Tiktok rival had been running a policy where every other week was six days long.

The website’s bosses would likely have been influenced by the waves of discussion about overworking that have been sweeping through the country.

Some people favor 24-hour workdays, while others have the opposite ambition: to have no job, no house, no car, no spouse and no children. These are the “flat-liers”.


Many work-related discussions revolve around buzzwords. Funny and creative, they often trigger waves of humor, while proving to be a good guide to the developing thinking of modern urban staff in the country.

Here’s a guide to some of the most popular.

1) “996” – these are the ultra-ambitious staff who work from 9 am to 9 pm six days a week.

2) “007” – these are the people who have zero hours, zero minutes downtime, because their web-based operations run day and night, seven days a week.

3) “Big week small week” – Kuaishou’s six-day work requirement every other week.

These terms inspired thousands of jokes about over-ambitious workers. For example:

My body set off the metal detector at the airport, and security staff were puzzled. 

“That’s my steely determination,” I told them. 

“Welcome, worker,” said airport staff.

4) Last year China saw the beginnings of a backlash against this type of blind ambition that too often fails to deliver on its promises. “Involution”, or neijuan (内卷) in Chinese, became the hot word. This is an obscure term that has been repurposed to indicate that the evolution of your career has failed – you worked extremely hard but did not rise to win the rewards. The Chinese characters indicate “inner turmoil”. 

This term also triggered many jokes based on the idea that people work but their bosses benefit.

“Call yourself a hard worker? Your boss only buys a new car every other year,” joked a commenter on a Bilibili video on the topic

“So you think you work hard? Your boss’s 21st mistress is only on her 71st Louis Vuitton!” quipped another.


As you can see, the message here is that too many people work long hours but someone else gets the rewards. The theme, which is credited to an over-dubbed cartoon on Bilibili, goes like this: “We must work hard! How else can our boss live the life he wants?” 

The cartoon was called “Laborers take heart!” and was viewed two million times in its first week. It turned the word “laborer” into a buzzword and popularized associated phrases such as “corporate cattle”, “overtime dog” and “brick mover”, according to Sixthtone, a Chinese cultural commentary website. 

5) “Lying Down” is the latest buzzphrase, and it captures the backlash against working long hours. In April, a post appeared on “Baidu Tieba”, the most used Chinese communication platform. It was titled “Lying-Down Is Justice” and called for young people to resist “involution” by withdrawing from the competition.

The Lying-Down lifestyle includes not getting married, not having children, not buying a flat or car, and refusing to work overtime or even staying employed. Members of this “resistance” movement stay at home and sleep and watch television series or play video games. 


What many young people don’t realize is that the ultimate cost of Lying-Down may be higher than participating in the struggle. 

But there are also many young people who want to ask: Are there any other options between “Lying-Down” and “Involution”? 

In practice, many young people move repeatedly between “Involution ” and “Lying-Down”. You work too hard and exhaust yourself and drop out for a while—and then you have to repeat the cycle. That’s now an aspect of life for contemporary Chinese young people.


One answer may be for the Chinese government to simply implement its own work rules more stringently. The country’s labour laws don’t allow working schedules to be more than 44 hours a week, and prohibit overtime work to 36 hours a month. 

People who are older and worldly-wise may recall similar processes overseas. In the West, the 1950s “Protestant work ethic” led to a backlash in the 1960s, where people would “Drop out, turn on and tune in” – give up studying and become hippies. In the 1990s, there was much mockery of the “salaryman” lifestyle in Japan.

In developed economies today, there’s a significant focus on “work/ life balance”. The idea is that happy, refreshed workers ultimately produce better results than over-worked ones. Staff in China would certainly benefit from a similar movement providing a happy meeting point between involution and lying-down.  

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Images of commuters from Lisanto/ Unsplash

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