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Worked to Death in China
Engineer's death alarms Chinese white collar workers
Xu Zhiqiang (xuzhiqiang)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2006-06-07 05:04 (KST)   
Since last week, hundreds of thousands have signed in on China's netizen sites to mourn the death of Hu Xinyu, a 25-year-old engineer whose untimely death was attributable to overtime work and other continuing pressures. At the same time, more and more white-collar workers are taking a second, critical look at the longstanding overtime traditionally demanded of them.

Hu was in hospital at the end of April and died of bacterial encephalitis on May 28. Before being admitted, he had put in overtime almost every day for all of April on an R&D project and often stayed on task till the wee hours.

Hu had been employed by Huawei Technologies, headquartered in Shenzhen, adjacent to Hong Kong, for about a year after graduating from Chengdu, the capital of southwest Sichuan province. To most young graduates, it was a desirable job, because Huawei is China's top telecom company, and its staff salaries are competitive. After being recruited, Hu entered the white-collar ranks.

Hu treasured his job very much and was trained by Huawei to work with dedication. Huawei's corporate culture is the "wolf spirit," created by its founder, Ren Zhengfei, since incorporation in 1988. This culture helped Huawei expand from scratch to a 40,000-employee telecom giant, with last year's sales reaching US$8.2 billion.

An inescapable part of such rapid expansion is the enormous pressure brought to bear on each employee. The "eliminate through selection or contest" system of appraisal is strict. Hu's workday routine was to leave the office at 10 p.m. for a one-hour bus ride to his dormitory, only to get up at 7 a.m. the next day to catch the bus.

Continuing pressure weakened him gradually until he caved in to the strain of overwork on the latest R&D project, making him susceptible to infection, disease, and finally death. It's rumored that, not long ago before Hu's loss, an employee of another prominent IT company in Shenzhen had died from overwork.

"Without life, higher scores and salaries mean nothing."

"I know I should balance my work and life from now on."

"The human body is not a machine. Health is king."

Lots of netizens have been leaving their thoughts.

This time, the context is China's growing white-collar labor force that so hugely reflects Hu's death. Actually, Hu typified this expanding class of labor — well educated, hard working, pursuing a quality lifestyle but without adequate savings or adequate rest to safeguard health.

China's white-collar workers consist mainly of elite migrants from rural poverty to the cities as well as college graduates. It is flourishing as part of China's economic growth spurt, a partial result of privatization, and a major contributor to urbanization. From 1982 to 2003, the rural population decreased from 80 percent to 60 percent of the total, and 250 million people have moved to the cities. In just the last two years, the annual college graduation rate has exceeded 3 million.

In the public eye, compared with miners, who risk their lives working underground, and peasants, white-collar workers are thought of as a favored group, while the truth is more complex. They are burdened with taking care of their parents and children, while soaring housing costs and inflation vex them.

In fact, they are not yet middle class, in the western sense, but middle class wannabes. Last year, China's GDP per capita rose to $1,700, so that "middle class" has to be understood in relative terms.

A venture capitalist once told me that, according to her calculations, there are more than 480 million Chinese with a per-capita GDP exceeding $2,000 and 50 million for whom the figure is at least $7,000, and all of them yearn for a better life and material lifestyle.

To pursue this dream, they see the only way as working harder and longer, no matter what the cost to their mental and physical health. An expert says that overtime and health damage are a common trend in developing countries playing catch-up with the First World.

In any case, Hu's death is ringing alarm bells for the mass of dedicated white-collar workers. Hu was the backbone of his family, and his loss has brought the family much grief after his parents arrived in Shenzhen from their village in Sichuan.

A spokesman of Huawei told media recently that Huawei is now emphasizing two things employees must observe — no permission for overtime in labs, and overtime work must be strictly approved in advance.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Xu Zhiqiang

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