Greetings from Chinarrative!
Here is the second part of the long-form feature published recently by Media Fox (极昼工作室), an online media company affiliated with Sohu News. The writers—Cai Jiaxin, Yin Shenglin and Li Xiaofang—delve into the extreme work culture of Pinduoduo, an e-commerce firm that has grown rapidly into one of China’s tech titans. The first part can be read here.
Through interviews with several former employees, the article shows the immense pressure on employees who endure long hours of overtime and could be fired at a moment’s notice.
No straight line has been drawn between the two recent deaths and Pinduoduo’s work culture as described in this article. Chinarrative, as a translation platform, hasn’t independently verified the claims made by the Media Fox reporters. Comments by Pinduoduo regarding recent events can be found here (in Chinese).
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Finally, I Don’t Have to Work Tomorrow, Part Two
If he hadn’t joined the grocery shopping project, Chen would probably have continued as a typical Pinduoduo guy. Far from loathing the 11-11-6 system, “it’d be good if this model continued,” he said.
The project, Duoduo Maicai, initially covered the cities of Wuhan and Nanchang. It was part of Pinduoduo’s foray into community purchases, whereby the company sold basic foodstuffs in bulk to groups at lower than the market price. After Chen and a higher-level colleague joined in August last year, Chen’s only Saturday rest day was canceled.
As a newcomer, Chen was responsible for the simplest tasks. After Duoduo Maicai officially launched on Aug. 17, he thought he could finally relax, and made arrangements with former classmates to watch a movie on the following Saturday. But his bosses quickly put paid to that idea, telling him to spend that day optimizing a mini-program.
According to public reports, Duoduo Maicai’s daily order volume exceeded 200,000 within 13 days of its launch, far outstripping its competitors. This turned out to be just the start: Later, Chinese internet giants like Alibaba, Meituan, Didi and JD all joined the fray.
On the 29th floor of the Pinduoduo offices, the project’s popularity fueled a rapid expansion. Chen’s team went from occupying four rows of desks in August to 10 rows by early December; between August and October, the number of technicians grew from 15 to more than 50. The increasingly numerous team members tended to change roles every month.
Some worked so hard that their clothes stank of sweat, while the team’s individual members had virtually “no communication, no sharing, only work,” Chen said. Every afternoon, he felt chest tightness, dizziness and nausea, “maybe because there was too much carbon dioxide in the room.”
The cogs of Pinduoduo’s vast machine ran faster and faster, and nobody knew when they would slow down.
As 26-year-old Liu Wenwen recalls, Pinduoduo’s management changes work in cycles. She joined the company as a graduate trainee at the end of 2016, when Pinduoduo relied on the social messaging platform WeChat to accrue huge amounts of users and traffic. “Sending WeChat links is very much like how dodgy websites use phishing tactics,” she said. However, within a year of its establishment in 2015, it had more than 100 million users, had secured $110 million in B-round financing, and had become one of the most-watched unicorn companies.
When Liu joined the company, Pinduoduo only had a few hundred employees. At her induction, founder Colin Huang (Huang Zheng) gave a speech to the new recruits. Liu did not recall that Pinduoduo promoted its now-essential “benfen” ethos during the year she spent at the company.
Instead, she says Huang’s speech “was mainly about young people realizing their own values through work … and not being afraid to work overtime because it was something you had to experience as you grew up. You could only see your loyalty to the company through constant overtime and dedication.”
Summarizing the key themes of the speech, Liu said it was about:
Dedication, overtime, growth, collective spirit, and abandoning individual personality.
In the view of former employee Yang Kai, Pinduoduo’s stock market listing was a turning point. After that, “there was a kind of unexplainable depression everywhere.” He recalls that after joining the technical department in the second half of 2017, everything seemed normal, with the exception of frequent overtime.
Leadroyal, the pseudonym of a safety engineer who worked at Pinduoduo for three years, wrote in his memoirs that after the company went public in 2018, some employees asked Huang when they would finally get a two-day weekend, to which Huang replied that they wouldn’t do so until Pinduoduo became China’s No. 2 company in the e-commerce industry.
At the time, Pinduoduo had begun to mythologize itself, having gone public within three years of its founding. By comparison, JD.com, then China’s second-largest e-commerce company, took six years to list on the stock exchange.
In 2019, Pinduoduo’s number of users, gross merchandise volume, and market cap all surpassed JD.com. But staff did not receive their two-day weekend. Some former employees remember that Huang replied to the renewed requests by saying Pinduoduo was too young and still lagged behind industry leader Alibaba.
Under the company’s high-speed operation, everything that could be used had to be used to its fullest extent, while anything of no use had to be ruthlessly eliminated.
Little by little, the company eroded communications among staff. When Yang first joined the company, he often chatted with colleagues on WeChat. But later, the company began using a corporate messaging service operated by QQ that used only nicknames, and banned staff from forming WeChat groups. Soon afterward, the company developed its own internal communication software and began monitoring conversations.
Privacy also ebbed away. Once, seeing a queue for the bathroom on his floor, Yang went to the one downstairs. He returned to his workstation slightly late and was caught by HR surveillance, resulting in his boss ordering collective punishment for the whole team. To protect his privacy, Yang never connected to the company’s intranet, choosing to use mobile data while at work.
When someone complained about Pinduoduo on Maimai, the company would check the phones of the entire department. Yang felt disrespected but did not dare say anything:
How can you say no? Do you want to get the boot? Refusing definitely isn’t part of your duty. You might get blacklisted.
Several former employees said they had feelings of distrust. Leadroyal wrote that, before 2019, Pinduoduo could use computer browser records and chat records to prove whether a member of staff was at their workstation. Later, rumors circled that senior executives had become furious at revelations that some employees were turning on the computers for nearby colleagues, and decided they would make human resources personnel check that staff had used cards to clock in and out of work. “The company really distrusts its employees and always assumes the worst in people,” wrote Leadroyal.
At first, Pinduoduo employees stored technical and product documents on a collaborative platform so that everyone could learn from each other. Yang recalled that in order to prevent information leaks, the company removed functions such as search and recent visits, covertly cutting the connections between departments. Staff who wanted to collaborate on a project had to find people through their internal networking, harming efficiency.
Former employee Li remembered a colleague who, soon after starting at Pinduoduo, told his team leader he was going for an interview, but went to a downstairs cafe to spend an hour with his friends. “This is just a small matter at other companies,” Li said, but at Pinduoduo, it was interpreted as a fundamental lack of honesty. The colleague was fired.
When you dedicate all of your time and energy to Pinduoduo and show your loyalty to the company, will the company, in turn, laud you for your sense of duty?
Throughout August, Chen did not take a day off. He adopted a “nocturnal lifestyle,” leaving work at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. every day — or, at the latest, 6 a.m. — and returning to the office the following afternoon. In October, his supervisor said his working hours would return to normal in April. But when he saw Huang’s speeches broadcast on the office TV, Chen vaguely remembered how Huang finally reminded everyone to abandon their illusions. “The more I listened, the bleaker my heart felt,” Chen said, adding that it felt like being told to give up “the illusion of wanting to rest on a Saturday.”
Chen began to question the meaning of this kind of life. In his opinion, one day off a week is an achievable aim, but the company appeared to want to “use people as tools, cut them into 24-hour entities, (make them) keep working, and not let them rest.” He had once felt vaguely moved by executives who said the grocery shopping project would be “meaningful for society” and “create value for users.” But what about its value? For Chen, it was nothing more than “convenience” and “cheapness.”
Over time, he came to think of these slogans as “nonsense,” because he could not even ensure he had the most basic level of rest. After he transferred to the grocery shopping project and began working at least 12 hours a day, a colleague who saw him leaving around 12 a.m. one night said sourly:
Why are you leaving so early?
Chen’s line manager was one of the few people he met who approved of Pinduoduo’s values. The 40-something man often told Chen that Pinduoduo is a fast-growing company where three years of work was equivalent to five years of experience. In October, Chen watched the manager lie exhausted on his desk for half an hour. He was shocked: “I had never seen him so tired,” he said. Two days later, the manager quietly transferred to another project with a less-intense workload.
Chen also thought about running away. During that period, he kept glancing at the button marked “resignation” on the office computer system. But he told himself to keep going. He remained as diligent as ever and did not cross any red lines.
Instead, the system abandoned him first—because of an online rant he posted anonymously, because he had betrayed his “duty.”
Stability Not Excellence
After Chen left Pinduoduo, nobody discussed his departure. Or rather, they did not notice it. Two days after he left, a colleague finally sent him a WeChat message asking what happened. Even after witnessing his resignation, Chen’s supervisor of five months only said two sentences to him: “Come with me” as he called him away from the workstation, and “Don’t do that again” as he escorted him out of the building.
Chen has started looking for a new job—this time with two new requirements. First, if he earns less than he did at Pinduoduo, he will demand two-day weekends. And second, he will not accept overtime. The 27-year-old said:
Life is not about excellence, but stability.
He is no longer drawn toward working for a major internet company. He said:
The kind of performance they achieve by relying on loads of overtime is not at all innovative in a technological sense.
On the afternoon of Jan. 3, Chen was preparing for an interview. As he browsed through Maimai, he saw a post from someone claiming their friend had died suddenly while working on the grocery shopping project in China’s Xinjiang region. “Will nobody dare to say anything about it?” the post read. “Do you all think earning a bit of money is more important than anything?” Chen kept reposting the message in the hope that more people would see it.
A few days later, a 23-year-old Pinduoduo worker in the central city of Changsha died by suicide by jumping from the 27th floor of her office building. Soon afterward, engineer Wang Taixu stated that he was asked to voluntarily resign because he anonymously posted photos on Maimai of an ambulance taking another colleague away.
But the deaths didn’t seem to change anything in the company itself. One anonymous social media post said “at least Pinduoduo pays a high salary”; another even said “it’s worth sacrificing your life for that much money.” On Jan. 5, Pinduoduo’s share price soared more than 12%.
However, the news did affect certain company individuals. A former Pinduoduo security engineer said many students inquired about his views on the firm following the incidents.
When she read the news, Manman felt strangely relieved. The fresh graduate of a top college had accepted an offer from Pinduoduo for a job as a graduate trainee in operations. Despite being career-oriented and hardworking, she eventually paid the 5,000-yuan fine to breach her employment agreement, citing health and family considerations. She now works in a steady, nine-to-five job at a public institution. “At that moment, I kind of felt I made the right choice and didn’t regret it.”
On her social media account, Manman wrote:
Like those around me, I felt a chill run down my spine, as if I was momentarily unmoored from the world. I believe that if this hadn’t happened, she (the girl in Xinjiang) would be with me and us. Just like this year’s graduates, she went through a fiercely competitive recruitment process and got an offer with a satisfactory salary. She looked forward to her first job, hoping to carve out a place in the internet industry and open up new territory for Pinduoduo.
At the time, Manman thought that although Pinduoduo didn’t have an all-in-one office campus, few restrooms, no canteen and was frequently treated contemptuously by other major firms, it had opened an untapped market for itself and had excellent future prospects. Additionally, it had the cachet of being an internet company. She said:
The herd mentality is very strong. Everyone is scared of being left behind by their peers, of being left behind the times.
At her Pinduoduo interview, the recruiter asked Manman if she could accept the 11-11-6 work schedule. She said that although she was usually asleep by 11 p.m., “I was willing to be part of a team of trailblazers.” Nobody thought overtime was a serious problem, she said. “Which big company doesn’t do 9-9-6 (or similar)?”
After getting her offer, Manman was added to a WeChat group including new recruits and existing employees. At first, the group was very active, she said. “Everyone was getting their work nicknames, posting photos of their work meals, complaining that the stewed chicken didn’t have much meat in it and that there were queues for the toilets,” she recalled. To her, Pinduoduo’s work environment seemed relatively relaxed. But at some point, the group fell quiet, until in August last year the administrator kicked out all the members. Manman still doesn’t know what happened.
Li, a former Pinduoduo team leader, said many companies that uphold 9-9-6 hang a “thick fig leaf” over their work culture, making efforts to display their care for their employees and arranging a wide variety of recreational activities to help employees relieve stress. But Pinduoduo has none of that; it is “nakedly, straightforwardly profit-oriented,” he said. “They only care about your ability to recover … Pinduoduo’s staff turnover rate is quite amazing.”
Whereas he once recruited large numbers of youngsters into Pinduoduo, now he discourages them. He said:
These jobs aren’t suited to fresh graduates. They’re sponges that should absorb water and grow, learning goodness and kindness. But at Pinduoduo, everyone is desperately running forward, and all problems are obscured by the drive to develop. Who cares about your personal growth?
Liu, the former management trainee, left Pinduoduo three years ago on her family’s advice and spent time in the civil service. “I just wanted a nine-to-five job that gave me time to heal,” she said.
In 2019, she joined another, much smaller, internet company. She gets two days off every week, and her occasional overtime only runs until 8 p.m. at the latest. Although her work environment encouraged people to make suggestions to team leaders, she often clams up when she tries to do so. She sometimes envies her colleagues, who have a strong sense of autonomy and drive the entire team’s enthusiasm for work. “None of them have been beaten down by Pinduoduo,” she said.
Chen eventually decided to go back to his northern hometown. He no longer maintains such high salary demands, saying he can accept earning half as much as he did at Pinduoduo. He has moved out of his former apartment in Shanghai that lay just two subway stations away from the company offices, and is preparing to leave the city.
Before joining Pinduoduo, he counted himself as someone who had a lust for life; he went swimming and running, was briefly obsessed with roller skating, and read science fiction, historical novels and ancient poems.
Now that he has left the company, he has finally been able to take up his hobbies again. He cooks every day and strolls the streets of Shanghai. For a long time, he only knew the city’s “silent early hours and bustling mid-afternoons,” as he put it. But during his last few days, he has been surprised to discover the city “also has leisurely periods after dinner, when people gather and dance in the squares.”
(To protect their privacy, the names of the people in this article have been changed.)
Translator: Matthew Walsh
Contributing Chinarrative Editor: Isabel Wang