China: Trouble in Workers' Paradise

China: Trouble in Workers' Paradise

Three small numbers are making big waves in China. The digits 9-9-6, a shorthand for 9am to 9pm, six days a week, have become a rallying cry for tech workers frustrated with their bruising work schedules. In recent weeks, what began as a discussion among a few programmers has morphed into a broader debate about working conditions in China's most important industry.

It's a fascinating story, not least because it's a rare example of a labor protest in China organizing and going viral despite the country's sophisticated government-backed censorship.

But the 9-9-6 debate also exposes deeper tensions within the Chinese system:


China's political ideals vs its capitalist growth engine: Under the Communist Party, China is meant to be a workers' paradise, but labor laws limiting work to 40 hours per week plus 36 hours of overtime per month are rarely enforced. China is the only country in the world that's come close to replicating the success of Silicon Valley, partly because of workers' willingness to submit to the grind. But life is short, and as living standards rise, it's inevitable that well-to-do tech workers with globally attractive skills will start to demand more free time.

Tech billionaires vs "worker bees": Leading Chinese tech entrepreneurs have pushed back against complaints about the 9-9-6 movement, effectively saying, "suck it up, slackers!" Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba (and a member of China's Communist Party), said tech workers should consider it a privilege to work such a tough schedule. Another Chinese billionaire, JD.com founder Richard Liu, warned the company's future would be in jeopardy if people were no longer willing to put in the time, saying "slackers are not my brothers."

But here's the problem: Both the Chinese government and industry bosses need obedient tech workers. China's technology industry is increasingly the engine of its economy. The government needs tech workers to keep living standards rising across the country and create new economic opportunities as growth starts to slow. Tech companies need their high-skilled workers to compete in a cut-throat industry. No wonder workers say they're feeling squeezed and that the status quo is unsustainable.

Upshot: If that's true, what does it say about the sustainability of the Chinese tech-led growth model?

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If your country had suffered decades of crippling corruption, wouldn't you want to prosecute those responsible? Of course you would. On Sunday, almost 98 percent of Mexicans who voted in a national referendum on this subject said, in so many words: "Yes, please prosecute the last five presidents for corruption!"

The catch is that turnout was a dismal 7 percent, meaning the plebiscite fell way short of the 40 percent turnout threshold required for its result to be binding.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here from sunny Nantucket and going to be here for a little bit. Thought we would talk about the latest on COVID. Certainly, we had hoped we'd be talking less about it at this point, at least in terms of the developed world. A combination of the transmissibility of Delta variant and the extraordinary misinformation around vaccines and COVID treatment means that we are not in the position that many certainly had hoped we would be today.

The United States is the biggest problem on this front. We are awash in vaccines. Operation Warp Speed was an enormous success. The best vaccines in the world, the most effective mRNA, the United States doing everything it can to get secure doses for the entire country quick, more quickly than any other major economy in the world, and now we're having a hard time convincing people to take them. The politics around this are nasty and as divided as the country, absolutely not what you want to see in response to a health crisis.

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The world was recently shocked when US sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson was disqualified from Tokyo 2020 after testing positive for marihuana, a banned yet non performance-enhancing substance. That's because global public opinion on pot is shifting: cannabis is now legal in more than 40 countries and almost three-quarters of US states — red ones too. And although everyone is cashing in on the green gold these days, high profits are not the only factor driving legalization. Mexico may soon become the world's largest cannabis market in part to blunt the power of drug cartels, while the famously square World Bank is now best buds with Malawi for growing the world's finest sativa. Delve into the weeds of legalization on GZERO World.

Watch the episode: The (political) power of alcohol

The Biden administration is finally devoting more attention to Southeast Asia. Last week US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, marking the first regional visit by a Biden cabinet official. A trip by Vice President Kamala Harris is already in the works as well, and this week Secretary of State Tony Blinken will meet (virtually) with ASEAN counterparts.

The flurry of activity comes after earlier concerns that President Joe Biden was neglecting Southeast Asia, the region where US-China rivalry is the most intense. To understand better what Austin's visit meant, and what comes next, Eurasia Group's lead Southeast Asia analyst Peter Mumford spoke to us from Singapore.

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The COVID delta variant — which first surfaced in India earlier this year — is spreading rampantly throughout every continent, and is now the most dominant strain globally. But low- and middle-income countries, particularly in regions where vaccines have been scarce, are bearing the brunt of the fallout from the more contagious strain. We take a look at the 10 countries now recording the highest number of daily COVID deaths (per 1 million people), and their corresponding vaccination rates.

China tackles delta: China is the latest country to express serious concern over the highly contagious delta variant, after recording 300 cases in 10 days. Authorities there are trying to trace some 70,000 people who may have attended a theatre in Zhangjiajie, a city in China's Hunan province, which is now thought to have been a delta hotspot. Making matters worse, a busy domestic travel season in China saw millions recently on the move to visit friends and family just as delta infections spiked in more than a dozen provinces. Authorities have enforced new travel restrictions in many places, including in central Hunan province, where more than 1.2 million people have been told to stay in their homes for three days while authorities roll out a mass testing scheme. The outbreak has reached Beijing, too, with authorities limiting entrance to the capital to "essential travelers" only. Indeed, the outbreak has raised fresh concerns about Chinese vaccines' protection against delta, because China has not provided efficacy results for the variant.

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It was a weird series of events. Belarusian sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya took to Instagram to lament that her country's Olympic Committee had registered her for the 4x400 relay event at the eleventh hour (because a fellow participant had failed to pass drug screenings) despite not having trained.

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