exp GPS 1209 WITW Kai Fu Lee China tech boom_00005701.jpg
exp GPS 1209 WITW Kai Fu Lee China tech boom_00005701.jpg
Now playing
06:38
What in the World: China's tech boom
Russian diplomats working in the Pyongyang embassy had to use a handcar as they returned home from North Korea with their family members.
In a video released by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday (February 25) diplomats and their family members are seen pushing a handcar and cheering as they cross the bridge which serves as a demarcation line between the two countries.
PHOTO: Russia MOFA
Russian diplomats working in the Pyongyang embassy had to use a handcar as they returned home from North Korea with their family members. In a video released by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday (February 25) diplomats and their family members are seen pushing a handcar and cheering as they cross the bridge which serves as a demarcation line between the two countries.
Now playing
02:38
Video shows Russian diplomats leaving North Korea on handcar
The Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Department of Defense, located in Arlington County, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC is seen from the air January 24, 2017.  / AFP PHOTO / Daniel SLIM        (Photo credit should read DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Daniel Slim/Getty Images
The Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Department of Defense, located in Arlington County, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC is seen from the air January 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Daniel SLIM (Photo credit should read DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
05:24
US carries out airstrikes on Iran-backed militia groups
CATANIA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 18, 2021 - Mount Etna erupts in Sicily sending plumes of ash and spewing lava into air - PHOTOGRAPH BY Marco Restivo / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Marco Restivo/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
CATANIA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 18, 2021 - Mount Etna erupts in Sicily sending plumes of ash and spewing lava into air - PHOTOGRAPH BY Marco Restivo / Barcroft Studios / Future Publishing (Photo credit should read Marco Restivo/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Now playing
01:04
See mesmerizing footage of Mount Etna spewing lava
Vials of vaccine are packed at the Generium Pharmaceutical plant, which is gearing up production of Sputnik V.
PHOTO: CNN
Vials of vaccine are packed at the Generium Pharmaceutical plant, which is gearing up production of Sputnik V.
Now playing
03:21
Exclusive: Inside Russia's new Covid-19 vaccine factory
el chapo who is rs orig_00000406.jpg
el chapo who is rs orig_00000406.jpg
Now playing
00:57
Who is 'El Chapo'?
screengrab codogno lockdown one year on
PHOTO: CNN
screengrab codogno lockdown one year on
Now playing
02:20
Residents in Italian town reflect on life one year under pandemic
People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. Hundreds of volunteers are taking part in a cleanup operation of Israeli shoreline as investigations are underway to determine the cause of an oil spill that threatens the beach and wildlife, at Gador Nature Reserve near the northern city of Hadera, the tar smeared fish, turtles, and other sea creatures.
PHOTO: Ariel Schalit/AP
People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. Hundreds of volunteers are taking part in a cleanup operation of Israeli shoreline as investigations are underway to determine the cause of an oil spill that threatens the beach and wildlife, at Gador Nature Reserve near the northern city of Hadera, the tar smeared fish, turtles, and other sea creatures.
Now playing
01:10
Oil spill leads Israel to close beaches
Now playing
03:26
CNN speaks with sister of slain Myanmar protest victim
Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving his speech to Parliament, in in the House of Commons, London, about setting out the road map for easing coronavirus restrictions across England. Picture date: Monday February 22, 2021. (Photo by House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images)
PHOTO: House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images
Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving his speech to Parliament, in in the House of Commons, London, about setting out the road map for easing coronavirus restrictions across England. Picture date: Monday February 22, 2021. (Photo by House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images)
Now playing
02:09
Here's what we know about England's reopening plans
Luca Attanasio - The ambassador killed in DR Congo. He and the military were traveling aboard a car in a MONUSCO convoy, the United Nations stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
PHOTO: Italian Embassy Kinshasa
Luca Attanasio - The ambassador killed in DR Congo. He and the military were traveling aboard a car in a MONUSCO convoy, the United Nations stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Now playing
01:43
What we know about the killing of Italy's ambassador to the DRC
Iraq Baghdad coronavirus Covid-19 ICU Damon pkg intl hnk vpx_00002701.png
Iraq Baghdad coronavirus Covid-19 ICU Damon pkg intl hnk vpx_00002701.png
Now playing
03:27
Rare access inside a hospital shows how Iraq is handling Covid-19
PHOTO: Track 88
Now playing
02:00
Footage shows debris from plane in Dutch town
Taktshang Goemba(Tiger
PHOTO: Shutterstock
Taktshang Goemba(Tiger's Nest Monastery), Monastery, Bhutan, in a mountain cliff.
Now playing
03:24
This country still only has 1 reported death from Covid-19
Police security stand guard behind a road barricade in Mandalay, Myanmar Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. A young woman who was shot in the head by police during a protest last week against the military
PHOTO: AP
Police security stand guard behind a road barricade in Mandalay, Myanmar Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. A young woman who was shot in the head by police during a protest last week against the military's takeover of power in Myanmar died Friday morning, her brother said. (AP Photo)
Now playing
03:00
Pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar met with violence
PHOTO: Getty Images
Now playing
03:38
Olympics chief row reveals a deeper problem in Japanese politics
(CNN) —  

Wang Shichang works 12 hours a day, often for six days a week. The newlywed is so busy he says he barely has time for his wife.

At the age of 28, Wang’s energy levels are low. His eyes feel strained and dry. His sleep is light, and he says he’s put on 20 pounds since he started working as a developer four years ago.

“Climbing four floors makes me out of breath these days,” he says.

Wang blames his condition on what’s known in China as “996” – a grueling work schedule that stretches from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, which has become the norm at many Chinese tech companies and start-ups.

The topic has prompted heated debate on social media, with many tech tycoons and entrepreneurs weighing on the merits of long and stressful working hours. Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and one of China’s richest men, drew criticism earlier this year after he endorsed long work hours, calling them “a blessing.”

Wang doesn’t agree with Ma – and he’s not the only one. Many others have been voicing their complaints on Github, an online forum known in the tech world for code-sharing.

They also share “anti-996” memes that poke fun at their predicament. In one, a Japanese actress was photoshopped to carry a sign saying: “Developers’ lives matter.” In another, a couple hold up wine glasses with the caption: “Come, let’s celebrate being in the same room together for the first time in two years.” The Github project has been liked more than a quarter of a million times.

Jack Ma, one of China
PHOTO: Romulad Meigneux/Sipa via AP Images
Jack Ma, one of China's richest men, called long work hours "a blessing."

Despite the humor, Wang, the tech workers and experts alike say overwork is leading to serious mental and physical health problems.

No time

Long hours and excessive overtime were, for decades, commonplace in the country’s manufacturing industry. Now, a long-hours culture has spread to China’s offices.

A 2018 survey by China Central Television and the National Bureau of Statistics suggested that, on average, Chinese people have 2.27 hours of leisure time a day – less than half the time that people enjoy in the US, Germany and the UK.

According to a 2018 government-led survey on mental health in China, half of 403 surveyed tech workers said they were fatigued. Others reported vision problems, poorer memory, and spine and neck disorders.

Zhu, a 25-year-old programmer based in Shanghai, says most people in his company now suffered from “flat back syndrome” – a disorder that causes the spine to lose its natural low back curve. It can be caused by incorrect sitting postures.

“In the annual checkup, some doctors just skip the spine test and check the flat back box by default,” Zhu says. He added it’s “almost impossible” to maintain a good posture when sitting for long hours at work.

Many Chinese tech workers have sharing "anti-996" memes such as this one, which suggests working long hours will make you end up in hospital.
PHOTO: 996tsc
Many Chinese tech workers have sharing "anti-996" memes such as this one, which suggests working long hours will make you end up in hospital.

On top of the physical symptoms, Wang says his mental health has been affected, too.

“Stress at work makes my depression so much worse that I have to get clinical treatment for it,” he says.

Wang says his doctor urged him to better manage his work stress and get more sleep, but he says he finds it hard to make tradeoffs.

“My wife and I sometimes cut short our sleep to do things we enjoy,” Wang says. “I could sleep in at weekends, but I’d rather set an alarm and allocate more time to things like watching movies and going to concerts.”

Twenty Wu, a 23-year-old software developer for a Chinese e-commerce site, says he faces a similar challenge – wanting to cram in non-work activities and get enough sleep.

“I arrive home at around 11 p.m. on workdays and just go straight to bed with no time or energy for entertainment or study,” says Wu.

Of course, overwork is not limited to China.

Neighboring Japan and South Korea also share the culture of prolonged working hours. The terms Karōshi and gwarosa, in Japanese and Korean respectively, both refer to death from overwork.

The US counterpart of 996 is the “hustling” culture that emphasizes overwork and is celebrated in Silicon Valley. Elon Musk, the entrepreneur founder of electric car maker Tesla, once said he worked 80 to 90 hours a week, claiming: “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

’Boring and repetitive’

According to Xiang Yuanzhi, chief editor of the Internet Economy magazine, one reason this younger generation of tech workers feels they’ve been treated unfairly is a mismatch between expectation and reality.

Many are well-educated but find the work and pay offered by tech jobs aren’t what they had imagined. And unlike other high-intensity professionals, such as doctors or scientists, programmers do not receive equal social status and respect, which further reduces their sense of satisfaction, Xiang explains.

“Their work is mostly boring and repetitive, with focuses on tiny parts of gigantic projects of codes,” he says. “It’s extremely hard to get a sense of fulfillment.”

“To be blunt, programmers are essentially no different from assembly line workers,” Wang adds. “Young Chinese coders have grown up with a more affluent life. They demand more personal freedom and pursuits.”

Stigma

Among the 40 Chinese tech workers CNN reached out to, few said they had sought counseling or help from employee support services – something that not many Chinese technology companies provide.

Enoch Li, who runs a mental health consultancy for companies in China, says that in her experience, the mental wellness of employees is low on the list of things that tech entrepreneurs worry about.

“Sometimes they just don’t have the budget for it,” she says.

Even for Chinese companies that offer employee assistance programs, it’s more likely to be a one-way emotional support hotline that simply listens.

Li says Chinese companies overemphasize “emotional resilience” or “perseverance” but fail to tell employees when to quit putting on a brave face. And the stigma surrounding mental health issues in China means that many workers don’t express how they feel or seek help.

Zhu agrees that receiving mental health care can be frowned upon.

“Yes, I feel anxious, but it never occurred to me that I need help from a therapist,” says Zhu, who works for a foreign-funded tech company that provides employees with a free counseling service.

Wang hasn’t been so lucky. None of the five Chinese tech firms he’s worked for has provided any mental health services, he says. He diagnosed his illness by watching YouTube videos on depression and reading online forms.

Wang says he still battles with depression but is seeing a therapist, taking medication and making time to listen to music has helped – although the long hours he’s expected to work haven’t changed.