Work hard but be happy, says Alibaba's Ma

Xu Qing
As a heated debate rages about working hours, Alibaba chief Jack Ma has backed down on his comments that employees should be prepared to work 12 hours a day.
Xu Qing

As a heated debate rages about working hours, Alibaba chief Jack Ma has backed down on his comments that employees should be prepared to work 12 hours a day, saying companies cannot force workers to do excessive overtime.

Ma had said working 12 hours a day, six days a week contributes to the happiness of employees.

“Otherwise, why come to Alibaba? We don’t want people who comfortably work for eight hours,” he said late last week. Alibaba wants its staff to live a good life and be happy at work, Ma said in his latest comments.

Ma and other business leaders are fighting back against a viral online debate over (working 9am to 9pm, six days a week and ending up in the intensive care unit) versus 955.wlb (9am-5pm, five days a week with a work-life balance). founder and CEO Liu Qiangdong also backs 996, but, like Ma, says it is not compulsory — stressing he started out working 8116+8 (8am-11pm Monday to Saturday plus eight hours on Sunday).

Alibababa and are among leading firms accused in the online campaign of pushing China’s Labor Law says employers can ask employees to work up to three hours’ overtime a day, to a maximum of 36 hours a month.

“During the time I started my business, I slept on the floor of my office for four years to save money,” Liu said.

“Every day, I put an alarm clock on the floor, setting the alarm for two hours, because I was the customer service chief and I wanted to guarantee a 24-hour service.

“I never slept for more than two consecutive hours at that time. That’s why JD can survive and be the giant it is now. We need people who can shoulder responsibilities to make JD better, and even the country stronger, to work with me.”

But Li Guoqing, founder of leading online bookseller Dangdang, spoke out against 996.

On his Weibo account he wrote: “I strongly object to 996 ... if you work 11 hours a day, you won’t have time for a romantic relationship, family and a social life, which is ... also a valuable balance for work.”

He also pointed out that programmers would be exhausted after eight hours working at an intensity far higher than those holding meetings for 11 hours.

Despite the Labor Law, some workers feel forced to work long hours: Their bosses set deadlines for specific tasks but do not openly demand overtime.

Feng Lijuan, who works at, a human resources firm, said that in the Internet business employers don’t normally ask staff to work overtime. They just tell them a project has to be done before a deadline.

A woman surnamed Shen, a 35-year-old chief developer with a Shanghai IT company, who seldom needs to work 996, told Shanghai Daily that at some companies, even though employees weren’t required to work 996, “people in the industry often work for a project as a group, so if all the other people are working overtime how can you just go home?

“And if you don’t work as much as your colleagues and supervisors do, you might get the lowest KPI (key performance indicators) scores which could lead to loss of bonus and you will probably be fired eventually.

“And bosses in cut-throat industries tend to give staff deadlines which can hardly be met without working overtime. If you choose not to work 996 to finish the task before the deadline, you will still end up with a low score in the assessment.”

She said she put more importance on life than work, adding she had refused a job opportunity recently at after a headhunter told her she would be working from 10am to 8pm. But Shen did say that if she could get as rich as Ma by working 12 hours a day, she would do it — but for five years at most.

A 27-year-old product manager surnamed Dong, who has been working for two years for ByteDance in Shanghai, one of the new generation of Chinese Internet companies, told Shanghai Daily it was an unspoken rule that staff worked an extra day every two weeks, paid at 1.2 times the usual rate.

During a normal Monday-to-Friday week, staff sometimes work overtime voluntarily without pay.

She said she often worked overtime when she thought it was required.

“I choose to work like this not because the company asks me to do so, but because I can get job satisfaction from working here, taking into account all these factors: job, pay, working environment and relationships with co-workers,” she said.

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