“My company recently started ‘996’, and I realized how much it ruins people.” That’s one Chinese developer’s message to the world: Follow the punishing “996” work schedule, and you will end up in an intensive care unit.

“996” means 9am to 9pm every day, 6 days a week -- a common model in China’s tech industry. It’s an unspoken rule in China to clock up long hours, sometimes simply to show that you have a dedicated work ethic. 

On Thursday, the topic sparked wide debate on Chinese social media after a project named “996.ICU” became the top trending repository on GitHub. The website’s Chinese developer, who goes by 996icu on GitHub, first posted the site on Chinese developer forum V2EX. 

“Other than working I have to rest, and I’m communicating less with my family,” the developer said on V2EX. “So I made this website. Work 996, then get sick and get sent to an ICU.”

It’s not clear exactly what happened to the mystery developer, or if he even ended up in the ICU. But his story has resonated with many in the tech industry across the country.

“Developers’ lives matter,” says the developer. (Picture: 996.icu)

On Zhihu, China’s Q&A platform, a discussion about the site attracted more than 900 posts and more than 2 million views. People are also starting group chats on WeChat and QQ to complain about the situation, and many of them drew hundreds of members.

One developer working at Youzan, an ecommerce startup in Hangzhou, told me that he has been working until 10:30pm every day for six months, was sometimes required to come in on weekends and attended meetings at midnight. For overtime dinner, they were told to have instant noodles or grab food from the company’s fridge. 

Youzan drew public backlash in January after its CEO Zhu Ning called for employees to embrace the 996 culture. 

“If you feel no pressure working at a company, you should leave, for your employer is dying,” Zhu was seen writing on a WeChat post. “This ('996') is definitely a good thing looking back after a few years.” 

Zhu also said that he admires Huawei’s work culture: According to him, a Huawei executive once told an employee who wanted to quit for family reasons that they should instead “get a divorce”.

And it’s not just one startup. Many notable tech companies have reportedly adopted the model, including 58.com, Xiaomi, Alibaba and JD.com. ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, reportedly introduced a “big/small week” policy according to the South China Morning Post, where it asks employees to work 6 days a week every other week.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)

But for many people, it’s hard to change the situation. “I feel tired,” says the Youzan employee, “but there’s nowhere to go if I quit. The employment environment is bad right now.”