A 22-year-old female employee at Chinese e-commerce giant Pinduoduo died last week after working long hours past midnight, sparking an investigation into the company from Shanghai authorities and renewing discussions on social media about tech companies’ notorious “996” overwork culture.

Pinduoduo confirmed the death of an employee at its community group buying unit Duoduo Maicai in China’s western region of Xinjiang, according to a company statement on Monday (Jan 4).

The employee, a woman surnamed Zhang who was born in 1998, collapsed at around 1:30am on Dec 29 while she was walking home from work with colleagues, the statement said. Her colleagues sent her to a nearby hospital, where she died six hours later, it said.

Before the company’s response, news of Zhang’s death had gone viral on Chinese social media, with many attributing the death to overwork despite the lack of evidence.

On microblogging platform Weibo, hashtags about the incident drew more than 190 million views by time of publication. Another trending hashtag #996 – referencing the notorious work schedule of 9am to 9pm, six days a week – was already taken down from the platform.

Pinduoduo’s statement did not detail the reason for Zhang’s death or link it to her work, and there are no reports of a police investigation into the death. But by Monday evening, Shanghai’s local labour authority announced an investigation into Pinduoduo’s labour conditions without offering any additional details.

Pinduoduo declined to comment further for this story.

In its statement, the company said it sent colleagues to accompany Zhang’s parents when they arrived in Urumqi, adding that it did not make a public announcement to honour the parents’ wishes. Zhang’s body was cremated on Jan 3 with the consent of her parents, the company said.

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The company also attached a screenshot of a statement that it said was from Zhang’s father, saying the parents do not want their daughter to become the subject of “gossip”. The WeChat account purportedly belonging to the father thanked the company for its support and the colleagues who accompanied them.

The South China Morning Post was unable to reach Zhang’s father for comment. Zhang’s boyfriend declined an interview request sent through a friend. 

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Duoduo Maicai is a new business unit at Pinduoduo that is part of the New York-listed company’s pursuit for an edge in the billion-dollar community group buying market. Growth in the market has led to fierce competition against rivals such as Meituan, resulting in extra pressure and heavy workloads for employees.

‘Touching fish’: young employees rebel against Chinese work ethic

The incident came days after the news that Pinduoduo’s founder Colin Huang overtook Alibaba Group Holding’s Jack Ma and Tencent Holdings’ Pony Ma to become the country’s second-richest person.

The story of Zhang’s death initially went viral on Monday after a person posted to Weibo saying her friend died at Pinduoduo. “She is only 23,” the post said, noting the age Zhang would have turned this year. “Why is no one willing to stand out and say something?”

While there is no evidence linking Zhang’s death to her long working hours, many netizens were quick to connect it to 996 culture. The concept has long been known among those who work in China’s fast-growing tech industries as a common but unofficial work schedule.

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According to China’s Labour Law, employees are allowed to extend work hours by up to three hours for special reasons, but staff should not work more than 36 extra hours in a month.

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The topic sparked nationwide debate in March 2019, when a group of Chinese programmers started a repository on Microsoft’s code-hosting service GitHub called 996.ICU to complain about the unreasonable work schedule, calling out several Chinese tech companies, including e-commerce companies Youzan and JD.com.

“If you consistently follow the ‘996’ work schedule, you run the risk of putting yourself in an intensive care unit (ICU),” reads one section of the 996.ICU page explaining the campaign’s name.

The campaign soon became the top-trending repository on GitHub as more sleep-deprived tech workers joined in. It also led some Chinese tech tycoons to comment on the issue.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.



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