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2022-12-05 12:15:27

2022 was the year China’s Gen-Z came of age. The first cohort of young Chinese born in the 21st century — known as the “post-’00s” generation — have now reached the legal marriage age and graduated from university. 

In this four-part series, Sixth Tone will explore how the post-’00s differ from earlier generations, and how they might shape China’s future. The first story in the series focuses on the post-’00s pushing back against Chinese companies’ tough “996” working culture.

GUANGDONG, South China — After Meng Ling started her first job after graduation, she ran into a problem that generations of Chinese workers have faced.

You can listen to an audio version of this article via “China Stories,” a podcast produced by The China Project sharing the best writing on China.

During her interview, the 22-year-old had agreed a salary and set of responsibilities with the company in Shenzhen. But when her first payday arrived, her wages had been reduced by several thousand yuan — and not by accident.

“My manager said that I wasn’t skilled enough to be making that much, even though I was doing everything we discussed in the interview,” says Meng, who, like the other workers quoted in this article, spoke with Sixth Tone using a pseudonym to protect her privacy. “They also refused to give me a contract, but all my colleagues had one.”

The company likely expected Meng to quietly accept the lower salary. She did not. Instead, she hired a lawyer, provided evidence of her employer’s wrongdoing, and forced the firm to pay her 16,000 yuan ($2,200) in compensation.

Then, she shared her victory on Chinese social media using the hashtag “post-’00s rectifying the workplace.”

Job hunters attend a job fair in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, May 29, 2022. VCG

Job hunters attend a job fair in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, May 29, 2022. VCG

Militant Gen-Z employees like Meng have caused a huge stir in China over recent months. In 2022, the first cohort of Chinese born after 2000 finished university and entered the workforce. And they have quickly made their presence felt.

Chinese private companies have long been notorious for enforcing a grueling working culture, with workers frequently complaining about rigid office hierarchies, compulsory overtime, and unfair pay cuts. But the post-’00s appear less willing than previous generations to toe the line.

Post-’00s have taken it on themselves to push back against exploitative working practices, using the hashtag “post-’00s rectifying the workplace” to share their stories of rebellion and swap tips on how to defend their rights.

Stories of unruly post-’00s now frequently go viral on Chinese social media. New hires proudly boast of refusing to work overtime, ridiculing their bosses, and suing their companies. Employers complain that post-’00s are borderline unmanageable.

For some, the movement reflects a fundamental shift in Chinese society, as a new generation that grew up amid unprecedented prosperity rejects the harsh conditions imposed on their elders. But others argue the post-’00s aren’t doing anything new — and that they’ll soon change their ways.

A new force

The term “post-’00s rectifying the workplace” first started appearing on Chinese social media during the first half of 2022. Although it’s unclear who coined the phrase, several domestic media outlets have claimed the hashtag began with an anonymous post on the social app WeChat.

“It’s only the post-’00s rectifying the workplace,” the post reads. “I’ve been working for a year, and have arbitrated four companies, and sued two. I am who I am. I’m different.”

Since then, the term began appearing more and more often on social media. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, the hashtag has been viewed over 12 million times.

China’s Gen-Z mainly uses the hashtag to document their workplace battles. Users post screen grabs of their arguments with bosses, accounts of taking legal action against employers, and discuss refusing to work unpaid overtime.

Pidjoe/Getty Creative/VCG

Pidjoe/Getty Creative/VCG

By doing so, post-’00s hope to inspire others to follow their example. Many view their generation as uniquely prepared to stand up to exploitation — as opposed to the “obedient” post-’80s and “lazy” post-’90s.

Yun Xi’er, a human resources manager at a company in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, has experienced a post-’00s “rectification” firsthand.

Post-'00s can often be quite disrespectful to colleagues and management, like talking over them to get their point across ... We can’t use rectification as an excuse for being impolite.

Until recently, the company didn’t offer health insurance to new employees, despite being legally obligated to do so, Yun said. But when the firm recruited several post-’00s, the new hires challenged the company on its policy and eventually forced it to provide all its staff with insurance.

Yun acknowledged that the rectification movement is undoubtedly a good thing, especially when it targets illegal practices. But he questioned the abrasive approach some post-’00s employ.

“They can often be quite disrespectful to colleagues and management, like talking over them to get their point across,” says Yun. “We can’t use rectification as an excuse for being impolite. Gen-Z may feel righteous at the moment, but from my experience, they can do it in a better way.”

In many cases, post-’00s do appear to relish lecturing their opponents. In one chat exchange that went viral on the social platform Xiaohongshu, a Gen-Z employee wins a dispute with a company over unpaid wages. When the manager sends them their salary via WeChat, the employee also takes the opportunity to hurl insults at their former boss.

A viral meme under the hashtag “post-’00s rectifying the workplace” shows a Gen-Z worker telling their boss to shut up. From @乌鸦校尉 on Zhihu

A viral meme under the hashtag “post-’00s rectifying the workplace” shows a Gen-Z worker telling their boss to shut up. From @乌鸦校尉 on Zhihu

But Erica, a 22-year-old from south China’s Guangdong province, insists that not all post-’00s rectify their workplaces in this brazen way.

Erica’s first job was in a subdivision of the Chinese tech giant Alibaba. She recalls frequently clashing with the company over its illegal working practices, such as demanding staff to work unpaid overtime and her manager’s habit of smoking in the office.

“They wanted me to work late just because it looks good for the company. There was a culture of ‘if the boss hasn’t gone home yet, neither should you,’” she tells Sixth Tone. “One time, I worked for them until midnight, for no reason.”

Erica refused to work overtime again, and the company eventually stopped asking her to. But she stresses that she didn’t do this in an ill-mannered way; she simply explained that she had completed all her tasks and that the company would have to pay her for any overtime, as required by law.

“We are expressing our ideas and concepts about what work life should be like,” says Erica. “If the conditions are adverse, we don’t need to accept them.”

Fake rebels?

For many, China’s post-’00s are more rebellious than earlier generations for a simple reason: they can afford to be.

In an October episode of the Chinese chat show “The Wilderness Talks,” panelist Xi Rui argued that the trend of post-’00s rectifying the workplace is misunderstood. “I think it’s fake,” he said.

Previous generations had to work to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. But my generation has more support — we can challenge work cultures and leave jobs because of this.

Xi defended his claim by sharing the story of one of his post-’00s colleagues, who didn’t hesitate to quit a job he didn’t like because he had his family’s restaurant to fall back on. This would have been unthinkable for previous generations, who mostly grew up in poverty, he said.

That means that the post-’00s aren’t truly rebelling against the system, Xi said. They have been the main beneficiaries of the system: China’s extraordinary economic growth over recent decades has given them a level of freedom and comfort that earlier generations could only dream of.

But Maggie, another 22-year-old from Guangdong, says that it’s precisely the post-’00s’ comfortable backgrounds that give them the ability to push back against unfair labor practices.

“Previous generations had to work to put food on the table and clothes on their backs,” she says. “You’d take any job you could in that situation. But my generation has more support — there are more jobs and our parents are in a better situation to assist us. We can challenge work cultures and leave jobs because of this.”

People wait in line to enter an art museum in Beijing, July 25, 2020. VCG

People wait in line to enter an art museum in Beijing, July 25, 2020. VCG

During previous eras, Chinese workers prided themselves on their ability to endure hardship — to chiku, or “eat bitterness.” But the phrase has little relevance to today’s middle-class college graduates, who often have little immediate need to earn money, according to Wang Kan, a professor at the China University of Labor Relations.

“As the economy improved, pensions increased and the risk of falling into extreme poverty lowered,” he tells Sixth Tone. “So, parents don’t put as much pressure on their children to find work. Many parents in big cities feel that if their children are not happy, or if they feel marginalized, they can always return to the shelter of home.”

This extra support has enabled post-’00s to embrace a different view of work, and demand jobs that suit their needs. According to a 2022 report, employees born after 2000 are more likely to value the idea of having a job that gives them a sense of self-worth and regard it as a key factor when choosing a role.

Burning out

But some question how much the “rectify the workplace” movement will really change. After all, the older workers whom many post-’00s now accuse of being pushovers were once rebels themselves.

“This idea is not new — previous generations have also tried to rectify work cultures,” says Wang. “The generations before them were more focused on labor rights and working conditions. This new generation challenges hierarchies, strange work cultures, and puts more value on self-worth.”

When people are not married, they’re eager to rectify the workplace … But as workers get older and they need to think about their mortgage, children, and partner, they stop being so self-centered.

A major difference between the post-’00s and earlier generations is that today’s young Chinese are doing their activism online, and are therefore attracting more attention, Wang says. Post-’80s tried to force change by organizing strikes and protests when they were young, but these were rarely reported in Chinese state media at the time.

As the post-’00s get older, however, it’s likely that they — like the post-’80s before them — will mellow and begin to toe the line, according to Wang. They will have more to lose.

“One thing we noticed is that a lot of workplace rectification occurs early in a generation’s introduction to work,” says Wang. “When people are not married, they’re eager to rectify the workplace … But as workers get older and they need to think about their mortgage, children, and partner, they stop being so self-centered.”

People wearing protective masks in a subway in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, March 16, 2020. VCG

People wearing protective masks in a subway in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, March 16, 2020. VCG

That’s not to say that Gen-Z’s fight to bring change will be in vain. The efforts made by post-’80s and post-’90s brought significant improvements in Chinese labor conditions that Gen-Z cares about, such as forcing companies to provide formal employment contracts and allowing workers to take labor disputes to court, says Wang.

And there are already signs that Gen-Z is making progress. Earlier this year, Chinese travel company Trip.com implemented a new hybrid working scheme allowing employees to work from home, after a survey found nearly 90% of staff were in favor of the change.

Meanwhile, public fury about companies’ use of brutal “996” work schedules — where staff are required to work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days per week — has led the government to crack down on the practice. Wang is confident the “rectify the workplace” movement will bring further improvements.

“The workplace has changed, and will continue to change,” Wang says emphatically. “Before 2019, employee participation was not as active or institutionalized as it is now. Now, all state-owned enterprises have employee participation mechanisms … and large companies are required to establish employee participation systems as well.

“This has all come from pressure from the younger generation of employees,” he adds. “Businesses know that if they don’t listen to their employees, productivity will fall, and they’ll eventually lose their competitive advantage.”

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: Some of the viral memes under the hashtag “post-’00s rectifying the workplace.” Visual elements from Zhihu, reedited by Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone))