03/02/2022, 14.02
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Young Chinese dying from overwork: web giants to blame

by John Ai

The deaths have raised concerns about internet censorship and the protection of workers' rights. China's high-tech giants face the double challenge of strict government regulation and stagnant economic growth.


Rome (AsiaNews) - The deaths from overwork of two young Chinese men employed by two Chinese internet giants have drawn public attention to the protection of workers' rights in the face of the power of big-tech companies and the state. Despite state censorship, the two cases have inflamed the blogosphere.

In early February, the head of the censorship unit in Wuhan (Hubei) of video-sharing giant Bilibili died of a brain haemorrhage. Guan (his nickname) died at his home after several days of overtime put in during the Lunar New Year holiday. A web post says that Guan worked 12 hours a day for five consecutive days, usually covering night shifts.

In posts published anonymously, Bilibili workers complain that censorship control officers are forced to work up to 12 hours a day, with day and night shifts to ensure there are 24-hour checks. The comments accuse the company of censoring information about Guan's death: Bilibili prohibits its staff from publishing information that puts it in a bad light.

The company denied that Guan worked more than eight hours a day. The worker's family revealed that Bilibili did not even offer condolences. In response to the criticism, the company later apologised and announced that it would hire 1,000 more censorship staff to ease the pressure of the job.

In China, video-sharing services on the web are required by the authorities to check content before it can be viewed online. Chinese internet giants are developing artificial intelligence technology to automatically filter out politically sensitive content, as well as violence and pornography. In order to avoid misjudgements and omissions of artificial intelligence, most censorship tasks are however done by human workers.

Typically, each censor worker has to watch thousands of videos or posts per day. Failure to recognise sensitive content can lead to dismissal. Newly hired controllers undergo rigorous training. They are also obliged to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Due to the relatively low salary and strict job requirements, the employee turnover rate is high.

Most of the big Chinese web companies are concentrated in Beijing. In order to recruit examiners and lower costs, they usually outsource censorship or place the team of controllers in cities such as Jinan (Shandong) and Wuhan, where salaries are lower and there are universities.

The other death from overwork involved a software engineer at ByteDance, the company that owns the popular socialTikTok. The 28-year-old died after more than 40 hours in hospital, leaving behind a wife who was two months pregnant. Wu collapsed in the company's gym on 21 February. His wife said he worked a lot of overtime and blamed the company for not helping rescue him. The widow has no income and no job, but a home loan to pay off; she wants to return the home to get a refund.

At first, the rapid expansion of the internet industry attracted young graduates from the country's top universities. They were looking for a good income, seeing the heavy shifts and intense pressure as acceptable. An unwritten rule is that employees are fired before the age of 35. Chinese hi-tech companies pride themselves on the young average age of their workers, often under 30.

However, the Chinese Communist Party is tightening its control and surveillance over the web giants. State-controlled companies or government agencies hold shares in these groups and make decisions. For example, as TikTok is going viral globally, the Chinese authorities disadvantage foreign companies that intend to launch public offers to buy it. The regime wants to ensure control over user data and above all the obedience of the hi-tech elite.

Faced with increasing state regulation and shrinking domestic consumption due to the pandemic, web companies are laying off employees en masse to save costs.

On the other hand, with a higher level of education, the protests of young people working for technology companies are more widely heard, and the '996' working hours (9am to 9pm, six days a week) are boycotted. The authorities and the official media say that the 996 shift is illegal, but the companies are rarely punished and many young people still choose to put up with this exploitative situation.

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