The Men Who Set the Rules in Chinese Tech
Originally from a rural family, by the time I met Zhang, he was overseeing 20 engineers at tech giant Alibaba. A thirtysomething tech worker with a deep voice and confident manner, he took me through his career path, from joining Alibaba as a junior developer in 2010 to the decision he made to switch tracks twice in search of better prospects within the company. Zhang’s efforts and courage paid off handsomely: By the time of our 2018 interview, he earned more than $120,000 a year, was firmly settled in the eastern tech hub of Hangzhou, and was happily married with a child.
In China’s tech workplaces, workers like Zhang are known as dalao, or “gurus.” Although not always clearly defined, most industry workers agree they’ll know a dalao when they see one: Competent and confident, they occupy key positions and are well-paid for their work. Even more important to their identity is their attitude. They put work first, showing proactivity and aggressiveness in achieving company goals. In the process, they’ve come to embody an idealized form of masculinity within China’s tech industry. The dream of one day joining their ranks motivates new workers, shapes the management culture of tech firms, and helps internalize corporate control of workers.
Not that long ago, the term dalao only referred to the most successful tech entrepreneurs: Alibaba’s Jack Ma, JD.com’s Richard Liu, Tencent’s Pony Ma, and Baidu’s Robin Li — all of whom reaped the economic rewards of China’s tech boom.
By 2010, however, these firms had established oligopolistic positions in their respective market niches, and the opportunities for entrepreneurship shrunk. Pretty soon, young would-be tech workers abandoned their startup dreams and began pursuing a decent salary and promising career within the tech giants.
China’s tech giants, meanwhile, have fostered a culture of internal competition among workers and work teams. Although not entrepreneurs, workers are expected to carry on the entrepreneurial spirit of their company’s founder and be entrepreneurial employees. For example, Alibaba’s infamous “3-6-1 rule” stipulated that 30% of employees should be rated as outstanding on their performance evaluation, 60% as average, and 10% as underperforming. The last group lost their year-end bonus and were barred from promotion opportunities.
Some of these policies, including the “3-6-1” rule, have been rolled back, but internal competition remains rampant. Those who show initiative and lead in peer competition can rise to key positions within a company, giving them access to organizational and economic resources available only to a select few. These top employees set an example that others, especially male workers, feel pressured to emulate.
From this perspective, it is sensible to extend the definition of gurus to include the core, successful male workers in China’s tech companies. Indeed, while conducting field research on tech firms in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shenzhen from 2018 to 2020, I observed that the definition of gurus had expanded: The term was no longer reserved for the most successful entrepreneurs, but increasingly applied to high-performing employees at different companies.
Yet, while their interests overlap with those of the industry’s elites and they are rewarded in case of business success, guru-workers are also victims — of overtime culture, of layoffs, and of age-based discrimination against workers over the age of 35. In this sense, the constitutive elements of their workplace masculinity, such as showing proactivity and aggressiveness and putting work first, can also be viewed as the internalization of managerial control.
Take Shi, a twentysomething junior employee at a startup, for example. He spent the seven-day National Day holiday in 2019 working on a project at the office. Instead of resenting this mandatory overtime, however, he was proud to be the boss’s go-to guy for an urgent, important project.
The dalao ideal is perhaps best thought of as a kind of hegemonic masculinity, one with roots in the dominant gender norms of contemporary China. In her research on Chinese young men’s construction of exemplary masculinity, Liu Fengshu argued that chenggong — “outstanding accomplishment ” — has become a hegenomic norm of manhood.
The gurus’ image fits conventional norms of the gender division of labor, in which men are expected to be the breadwinner of a family, while also incorporating idiosyncratic features like an entrepreneurial spirit and the tech industry’s overtime culture. However, an increasing number of male workers feel unable to live up to these standards.
Until relatively recently, the tech sector was still considered an equitable channel of upward mobility for workers from non-privileged backgrounds. Many tech workers believed that, unlike the public sector and state-owned enterprises, where relationships play an important role in one’s success, the tech sector was competition-driven and meritocratic. As in the abovementioned case of Zhang, a talented, hardworking man could shed his background as the child of peasants and rise through the ranks on ability alone.
Over the past decade, however, many aspiring tech workers have found they are excluded from such opportunities. Competition to get into the oligopolistic conglomerates has grown fiercer as companies become increasingly selective in their hiring practices, mainly targeting graduates from the most prestigious universities. A clear hierarchical structure has developed within companies.
In some startups, I witnessed the frustration of young male workers struggling to break into the dalao ranks. Some blamed their female coworkers. During a workday lunch, George, a junior worker in his twenties, complained of a lack of guidance. “Those gurus,” he said, “are willing to guide good-looking young girls, but not us average-looking young men.” The success of female workers agitated him. Hidden behind the sexist expression was his anger over threats to his advancement.
Outside the workplace, meanwhile, tech workers at the bottom of the hierarchy can hardly afford skyrocketing property prices in China’s megacities without parental support. Consequently, they are less likely to be able to fulfill their traditional roles as breadwinners.
For all their complaints, the dalao world is hardly diversifying. The term itself is highly gendered in Chinese, and while it is technically possible for a highly successful female employee to achieve dalao status, the question almost never arises: Male ascendency in China’s tech firms remains largely unchallenged.
Ultimately, China’s tech gurus embody and enforce the masculine norms of entrepreneurial success and individualistic competition in China’s tech sector. They are a small group of men who put work first, win internal competitions, and occupy key organizational positions. But frequent layoffs in the sector, age discrimination, and corporate hierarchies have combined to distance many workers from this hegemonic norm. As a result, it’s possible that more male tech workers will withdraw from the workplace masculinity contest, whether by voicing their resentments, finding work in less competitive cities, or leaving the industry altogether.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A programmer in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, 2017. Xu Kangping/VCG)