‘Who isn’t trading life for money?’ asks Pinduoduo-affiliated account after overworked employee dies

Society & Culture

China’s tech industry has again been forced to confront its work culture after the sudden death of a young employee at ecommerce company Pinduoduo, who collapsed last week while walking home at midnight after working long hours.

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A 22-year-old worker surnamed Zhang, who joined thriving ecommerce firm Pinduoduo in 2019, died on December 29, roughly six hours after she fell to the ground on her way home. She had received first aid at a nearby hospital, according to a statement (in Chinese) released by Pinduoduo on January 4. “We miss you. We miss you deeply,” the company said, noting that it waited to reveal the news publicly until the employee’s family gave permission.

While Pinduoduo did not disclose the cause of Zhang’s death, there was widespread speculation that the woman was forced to pull late-nighters frequently at work, and that the physical exhaustion caused by overwork might have played a role in her demise.

Prior to today’s statement from the company, speculation had intensified when Pinduoduo’s official account on Zhihu, China’s Quora-like Q&A site, aggressively hit back at critics who accused it of requiring employees to work punishingly long hours and causing them serious health issues. In a response to a question regarding the news, the company defended its practices, writing, “Look at people from the underclass. Who isn’t trading life for money? I’ve always considered this a problem of this society, rather than a problem caused by capital.”

Pinduoduo’s statement continued, “This is an era where you have to put your life on the line to fight for a better future. If you choose to live comfortably, you have to deal with the consequences entailed by your decision. People have full control over how much effort they want to make.”

The statement was swiftly removed. Nonetheless, a screenshot of it circulated widely online, leading a spokesperson for Pinduoduo to call the post “fake.” However, after Zhihu verified (in Chinese) that the initial comments indeed came from the company’s account, Pinduoduo backtracked in today’s statement and said that an employee at a third-party marketing firm had mistakenly used the company’s account to post his own opinions. “His remarks are by no means to be taken as an indication of how Pinduoduo thinks of the case. We are strongly opposed to what he said,” the company stated while apologizing for the misstep.

The explanation, however, was met with skepticism on social media sites, where many people believed that the external agency employee was a scapegoat for Pinduoduo’s handling of the matter. “That sounds like a flatout lie to me. There’s no way a high-profile company like Pinduoduo would let an individual outside the firm post things on social media without its authorization,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

Others voiced indignation at Pinduoduo’s unwillingness to change its stressful working environment, excoriating it as a “greedy” and “brainwashing” exploiter whose relentless pursuit of growth was pushing its workers to the brink of fatigue, pain, and — in Zhang’s case — death. “It seems like Pinduoduo would rather lie and stoke anger rather than take action to make it an easier place to work. This really speaks volumes about how little it cares about employees’ well-being,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese).

The news has also attracted attention from the labor supervision department in Shanghai’s Changning District, where Pinduoduo’s headquarters was registered, which said today that it had launched an investigation into the case.

Employee burnout and stress is a serious problem in the average Chinese workplace, but it’s especially acute among some of the country’s biggest tech companies, many of which have famously rigorous workplace cultures that often encourage extreme workaholism, favor young people, and expect employees to give up their benefits like vacation time for the sake of productivity.

The working conditions of Chinese tech workers have come under increasing scrutiny in the past few years, with an online campaign protesting against the infamous “996” culture — working 12 hours a day (9 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and six days a week — creating an awakening among Chinese tech employees in 2019 and leading to calls to end the industry’s overwork problem.  

Although the movement faced vehement opposition from several Chinese tech moguls — Alibaba’s Jack Ma (马云 Mǎ Yún) defended overwork culture by calling it “a huge blessing” for young employees — some local governments are starting to roll out policies that demand better conditions and a limit on hours for workers. Last year, Shenzhen, home to Tencent, DJI, and other major Chinese tech firms, became the first Chinese city to introduce a regulation requiring local businesses to mandate paid annual leave for employees.

Update: In a message to SupChina, Pinduoduo stressed that the “unauthorized post” on Zhihu was from an “external vendor” and they “do not endorse this view completely.”

“Pinduoduo will like to clarify that Li is neither a Pinduoduo employee nor received authorization to post his personal views using Pinduoduo’s official account,” the company said in a statement. “Following the incident, Pinduoduo has suspended its working relationship with the vendor, recovered the account, and will take further action against related personnel.”

This post has been updated with a statement from Pinduoduo’s international communication team.