HONG KONG – Chinese banking regulator Li Jianhua literally worked himself to death. After 26 years of “always putting the cause of the party and the people” first, his employer said this month, the 48-year-old official died rushing to finish a report before the sun came up.
China is facing an epidemic of overwork, to hear the state- controlled press and Chinese social media tell it. About 600,000 Chinese a year die from working too hard, according to the China Youth Daily. China Radio International in April reported a toll of 1,600 every day.
Microblogging website Weibo is filled with complaints about stressed-out lives and chatter about reports of others, young and old, worked to death: a 24-year-old junior employee at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide Inc., a 25-year-old auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP; one of the chief designers of China’s next-generation fighter planes at state-run AVIC Shenyang Aircraft Corp.
“What’s the point of working overtime so you can work to death?” asked one commentator on Weibo, lamenting that his boss told employees to spend more time on the job.
The rising death rate comes as China’s workforce appears to be getting the upper hand, with a shrinking labor pool able to demand higher wages and factory workers regularly going on strike. The message has not gotten through to China’s white- collar warriors. In exchange for starting salaries typically double blue-collar pay, they put in hours of overtime on top of eight-hour workdays, often in violation of Chinese labor law, according to Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for Hong Kong-based labor-advocacy group the China Labour Bulletin.
“China is still a rising economy, and people are still buying into that hardworking ethos,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University in Tokyo. “They haven’t yet achieved the affluenza that led to questioning in Japan of norms and values.”
Japan is where the term karoshi, or death from overwork, gained notoriety in previous decades. It encompasses deaths from stroke, heart attack, cerebral hemorrhage or other sudden causes related to demands of the workplace. Because the causal relationship to work-related stress may not be evident, the death toll can be subjective and difficult to compile.
Japan’s parliament passed a law on June 20 calling for support centers, aid to businesses for prevention programs and more research on karoshi. The government in 2012 compensated 813 families able to show a link between overwork, illness and death, including 93 suicides.
The actual toll may be higher. Japan’s police agency counted more than 2,000 work-related suicides in 2013, and lawyers in 2009 said 10,000 deaths a year may be from overwork.
In China, such deaths are known as guolaosi.
“We have noticed that excessive overtime in China has become an issue,” the director of the International Labour Organization’s China office, Tim De Meyer, wrote in an emailed response to questions. “It is worrying as a physical and mental-health hazard.”
Work-life balance gets short shrift in a society that combines a modern pursuit of riches with an ancient belief in putting the community above the individual, said Yang Heqing, Dean of the School of Labor Economics at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing. In parts of China’s capital he has surveyed, 60 percent of workers complain of clocking more than the legal limit of two hours a day of overtime, taking a toll on workers’ family and health, he said. He is skeptical of the 600,000 figure, which he said may include other causes, and is working to compile his own data.
“More than in the Anglo-American corporate system, in Korea, China and Japan — the countries of the Confucian belt — there’s a belief in total dedication,” said Temple University’s Kingston. “Any job worth doing is worth doing excessively.”
China’s banking regulator Li had reason to be stressed. He ran the China Banking Regulatory Commission’s division overseeing the boom in China’s trust products, investments considered part of the estimated $6.2 trillion shadow-banking system that Chinese officials have sought to bring under government control. He had traveled to 10 provinces in the second half of last year and met with all of China’s 68 trust companies.
Employees in Li’s department regularly worked until midnight or later, said a colleague who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly. His death, categorized as from “long-term overwork” by the CBRC, was the latest in a string of cases garnering media attention.
The PricewaterhouseCoopers auditor in Shanghai had chronicled on her personal blog working through weekends, wanting a vacation and suffering fevers, according to official news agency Xinhua. A colleague in the Beijing office said employees were given tasks “impossible to finish without overtime,” as the case drew more than 30,000 comments on Weibo from users attributing her death to overwork, Xinhua reported.
A statement by PricewaterhouseCoopers at the time of her 2011 death said that Angela Pan, a first-year associate, had contracted encephalitis and had taken sick leave to check into a hospital where she later died, according to spokesman Wayne Yim, who said the firm did not have further comment on the case.
The Ogilvy employee, who worked in the technology department of the agency’s Beijing office, died in May 2013, crying out and keeling over as he stood up from his desk on his first day back from medical leave, according to a report in the Beijing Times provided by Ogilvy. Asia-Pacific Chief Executive Officer Scott Kronick declined to comment further on the case.
“In China there’s still the belief that you do things for the development of the good of the nation, for development of the economy, to forget your own self,” said Capital University’s Yang. “But don’t forget, overwork also causes harm to the nation and to the family.”
It was not always so tough. In earlier decades of the Communist Party’s rule, those lucky enough to land office jobs at sprawling government-run enterprises were guaranteed cradle- to-grave employment, housing, even food and schooling for their children, in what came to be known as the Iron Rice Bowl. Two- hour lunches often sweetened the deal.
Those comfortable-yet-costly perks were dismantled as China opened the door to capitalism starting in the 1980s. Inefficient enterprises started shedding jobs and benefits in the 1980s in order to compete in the new marketplace, said Crothall of the China Labour Bulletin.
Now, cubicle jockeys like regulator Li toil overtime in a society where issues of work-life balance are low on the agenda and self-sacrifice is the norm. Add to that long commutes and the detrimental consequences to health and family life start to add up, Capital University’s Yang said.
Family photos are rarely seen in Chinese offices, and workers are regularly expected to dine out entertaining clients. It is common for children of urban professionals to be raised by grandparents in distant provinces.
Today’s worked-to-death workers are held up as China’s heroes for the modern age, cut from the same self-sacrificing cloth as earlier communist martyrs such as Lei Feng, a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army who has been lionized in propaganda campaigns since the 1960s for his selfless devotion to the Communist Party.
The death of Luo Yang, called the father of China’s fighter-jet program by state-run media, sparked a bout of questioning about China’s hard-charging work ethic. He died at 51 of a heart attack on the same day the plane he developed, the J-15, made its first successful landing on an aircraft carrier in 2012.
“We only know of the sacrifice of Luo Yang, but we don’t know how many other people on his team died of overwork — isn’t it because of such admirable workers that the nation has reached its current status?” wrote a Weibo blogger who goes by the pen-name Ordinary Young MS.
Li, the banking regulator, is getting similar treatment. The CBRC released a statement June 10 calling him “a model for party members and cadres of the China Banking Regulatory Commission.”
“To learn from Comrade Li Jianhua, one must be like him, always firm in ideals and beliefs, the broader interest, loyal to the cause of the party and the people, unremitting struggling, sacrificing everything,” it said.
Li was born in 1965 in Baotou, a gritty coal city in Inner Mongolia, according to a eulogy posted on the instant-messaging application WeChat. He was one of the first after the Cultural Revolution to attend China’s newly reopened universities, where he studied economics and eventually earned a doctorate, it said.
He joined the Communist Party in 1985 and started working for the government in securities and banking regulation. In 2005, he was brought into the CBRC to help clean up trust financing, setting standards that laid the foundation for regulating China’s shadow-financing boom, according to Xinhua.
By 2013, trust lending was seen as potentially posing systemic risk to China’s financial sector, and he began touring dozens of cities to meet with industry executives, Xinhua said.
Li never discussed his personal problems with colleagues, according to the CBRC. No matter how busy he was, he kept his office door open to talk to “institutional and grass-roots organizations, leaving little time for his family,” according to the statement from the commission.
Chinese Financial News reported that Li once had an outbreak of shingles, a painful rash caused by the chickenpox virus, and still went on an inspection tour to Hunan province. When a colleague learned Li’s torso was covered with the rash, Li asked him not to worry others with the news, the article said.
In early April, Li’s doctor noticed some unusual symptoms and suggested he go to the hospital for a checkup, and Li “smiled and said he didn’t have any time,” the paper said.
Li had been up late at home and “collapsed while working, suddenly dying in the early morning of April 23,” the CBRC statement read. When Li’s wife tried to notify his office about his death, she did not know any of his colleagues despite his years on the job and had to find someone to pass along the message, according to another person at the agency who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The CBRC did not respond to questions asking to confirm the trust department’s working hours or Li’s wife’s notification.
“At some point, someone is going to stop and ask the question: ‘Why are so many young people pushing themselves so hard, why are we doing this to ourselves?’ ” said Crothall of the China Labour Bulletin.