Feb 06, 2021 09:30 AM

Weekend Long Read: Deaths on the Job Make People Mull the Meaning of Work

As Chinese society begins to reflect on the growing number of deaths by overwork, many see in the victims a reflection of their own situation. Photo: VCG
As Chinese society begins to reflect on the growing number of deaths by overwork, many see in the victims a reflection of their own situation. Photo: VCG

A slew of recent work-related deaths have prompted Chinese to ask themselves some unusual questions.  

Are you slaving away for money at the expense of your own health? Even if the payoff is ultimately minuscule? Do you wonder if there is any alternative to this harsh reality? As the Chinese society begins to reflect on the growing number of deaths by overwork — triggered by the case of a 23-year-old Pinduoduo Inc. employee, who collapsed and later died while returning home from work after midnight — many see in the victims a reflection of their own situation.

Such introspection in itself is quite something. Just a few years ago, Chinese society might not have responded with much empathy. Now it seems the foundation of the country’s notorious 996 work culture — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — has started to shake.

Such a profound change in mentality is reflected in “dagongren,” a buzzword that went viral on the Chinese internet last year. Roughly meaning “drudge,” it’s a somewhat self-depreciating descriptor implying one has no choice but to work hard to earn a meager living. Its emergence and popularity demonstrate a younger generation’s loss of focus on their chances of “success” higher up the ladder.

Instead, many have resigned themselves to being an ordinary worker just like everyone else. But social snobbery still holds a grip in today’s society. People constantly sneer “shengmuxin,” or “Madonna hearts” (a sarcastic reference to those whose political opinions are seen as either overly emotional or hypocritical virtue signaling). Precious few have sympathy for the weak. But when these same unsympathetic souls enter the meat grinder of real-world power relations, they may be astonished to discover they are weak themselves. That realization, of one’s own limitations, of mortality, often comes as a shock.

Public attention, for example, has returned to a string of incidences at advertising giant Ogilvy stretching back years. In 2013, a 24-year-old employee of Ogilvy & Mather died after working a month of continuous overtime. Stretching back further, Lin Zongwei, a senior account director at Ogilvy & Mather Beijing, died of a sudden heart attack in 2008. At the time, neither death caused a stir, not even in the advertising industry.

True enough, many people have achieved success by putting in long, hard hours. While they may complain of fatigue, their first reaction upon seeing others in the same situation was more likely to be derision rather than sympathy. Dismissing others’ struggles as signs of their weakness, some prided themselves for being able to sustain an intensive level of overwork — simply because they can do something others cannot.

A China Youth Daily article published a few years back offers a perfect illustration of this survivalist mentality: An apple tree produces 10 apples, but nine are plucked away. The tree may complain about its unjust fate, but it can also choose to “continue growing.”

“Actually, it doesn’t matter how much fruit the tree produces. What matters is that it keeps growing. One day when it grows into a tall, luxuriant tree, all the setbacks and forces that ever hindered its harvest will prove negligible,” the article argued.

This survivalist philosophy combines a social Darwinist (i.e. “survival of the fittest”) mentality with the philosophy of self-actualization. For those under its sway, it may not occur to them to question whether this system of thought is actually reasonable. Instead, the ideology encourages an extreme tolerance for inequality while breeding fantasies of “taking initiative” — “If I take initiative, I can grow even in an oppressive environment; any injustices along the way are merely ‘rites of passage’ on the road to my inevitable success.”

Indeed, when individuals are too weak to resist oppressive structures, this kind of thinking can provide real relief, even a sense of spiritual victory. Survivalist thinkers are not necessarily unaware of their exploitation, they are just hopelessly unaware of a critical thing: In the vast majority of cases, self-made success is a mere illusion, a tool used to manipulate behavior into serving the interests of those in power.


The narrowing socio-economic ladder

How did this philosophy enshrine itself in the modern workplace? Perhaps it partly has been handed down over the centuries: A legacy of what might be termed “performancism" dating back to imperial China’s longstanding civil service examination system. Other elements could be a social ethos that sees work itself as a form of morality (and “consumption” as a sinful indulgence), combined with the insidious effects of an oversupply of labor. But the biggest factor may be the state of upward social mobility and the impact of Western cultural and economic assumptions.

Take, for example, the hazy notion of the "American dream” as a mechanism of social progress: People are willing to accept inequality because other values (particularly “freedom”) are more important; indeed, inequality may even work in their favor; but there is a condition that must be met or the dream will lose all tenability — society has to offer at least the illusion of upward social mobility. One recent study showed that 19% of Americans are confident that they can become part of that 1% if they just work hard enough. Moreover, 20% of Americans believe that they already belong to the top 1% of their country’s economic class!

In China, many have denounced traditional systems of cut-throat competition against dismal odds. But as long as there are some opportunities to climb the socioeconomic ladder, no matter how few, the illusion can continue to seem justified. People refuse to admit they are incompetent, while deriding “losers” for their weakness. For the majority, the more difficult it is to succeed, the more alluring competition becomes. When the odds are stacked against success, being able to come out on top is that much more gratifying. The very structures of inequality do not only serve to strengthen individual motivation; they are also self-stabilizing. In this sense, what people want is — to put it bluntly — miserably little: Just leave one door open, some small path leading high up the socioeconomic ladder.

Forget the superman myth

Indeed, it is our wealth of opportunities for self-improvement that allows the “success by hard work” theory to hold water. But as university enrollments expand and more and more people join the upward climb, class solidification diminishes potential opportunities, and even the most committed supporters of survivalism start to harbor doubts.

The nagging sense of a lack of social mobility can rupture the illusion that otherwise brings motivation and stability. 

People do not only put up with unfavorable conditions because they lack the means to resist. They may also lack the desire to resist, as they wallow in fantasies of benefiting from the current system — as long as they can continue to work on self-improvement. But harsh reality may one day lead to a wake-up call: Failure is vastly more likely than success. No matter how “tall and luxuriant” one may grow, sooner or later the “fruits” of one’s labor will be plucked away. What, then, is the point of working so hard to grow? It would be much easier to stop wasting one’s energy and just opt out of the game.

Everyone has heard some version of the saying “pay your dues now and you’ll be rewarded in the end.” But a very different reality has pierced the bubble of survivalist thinking. People have found that even if they “pay their dues,” it doesn’t necessarily lead to success. For some, “success” itself no longer even holds any appeal.

It’s time to abandon the myth of supermen and women. One should accept the reality that your children, grandchildren and descendants will all be ordinary people. Rather than losing yourself in fantasies of their success, consider how to create a society where the rights of ordinary people are well-protected. Against that backdrop, you might choose to work a little less and find more meaningful priorities.

Wei Zhou is a columnist for Caixin.

Contact editor Michael Bellart (

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