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New employee death at Chinese tech giant Pinduoduo prompts calls for boycott

A display at the Nasdaq Market site shows a message after Chinese online group discounter Pinduoduo was listed on the Nasdaq exchange on July 26, 2018. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
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TAIPEI, Taiwan — One of China's largest e-commerce giants, Pinduoduo, is facing calls for a boycott after an engineer died by suicide — the company's second death in less than two weeks — amid accusations of harsh work conditions.

Pinduoduo, an online deals platform responsible for minting the country’s second-richest man, has become a lightning rod for public anger over the grueling hours common in China’s tech industry, known as the “996” schedule of working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.

Pinduoduo said an employee — it gave only a last name, Tan — jumped to his death in his hometown of Changsha in central China on Saturday. The company said Tan, in his 20s, had asked for leave from the Shanghai-based platform on Friday without giving a reason and traveled home that same day.

Death of Chinese tech worker fuels anger over brutal hours

The company said it had sent a team to Changsha and expressed “profound sadness” over Tan’s death.

“To support our employees we are setting up an internal channel and dedicated team to provide psychological counseling and consultation services for emergencies,” Pinduoduo said in a statement.

Tan’s death follows that of a woman in her 20s named Fei who collapsed while walking home from a long shift on Dec. 29. She died after six hours of first-aid treatment, and although the cause of death has not been released, critics seized on the case as an example of consistently inhumane treatment of those working in the tech industry.

On Sunday, Pinduoduo’s public relations crisis deepened when an employee with the last name Wang posted a video in which he described the relentless pace of work at the company, alleging that staff members were required to work 300 hours a month. According to Wang, the department in which Fei worked, which specialized in groceries, required 380 hours.

Wang said in his video, “The situation is too real to be overlooked, and this is the last straw. . . . This is not how the world is supposed to be.”

Wang said he was dismissed after he earlier posted a photo of an ambulance that he claimed was carrying away a co-worker who had collapsed at the office. “A second Pinduoduo warrior has fallen,” he wrote anonymously on, a LinkedIn-like platform for sharing information about companies.

Within half an hour of sending his post, Wang said, he was summoned by executives and fired. In response to criticism, Maimai released a statement maintaining that it had not released his information to his employer.

Pinduoduo said in a statement that Wang was let go because he had posted “extreme statements” online in violation of the employee code of conduct. Pinduoduo did not respond to requests for comment on the video.

Anger on social media, already at a high after the death of the young woman, reached a new level in response to Tan’s death and Wang’s video, which was viewed more than 50 million times as of Monday.

“Pinduoduo is the new Foxconn,” one commentator wrote, referring to a spate of suicides in 2010 among workers making Apple products at the company’s factory in Shenzhen.

“Heartless Pinduoduo. Heartless Colin Huang,” another wrote on Weibo, referring to Pinduoduo’s founder, who became China’s second-richest man last year. “Diabolical capitalists have no heart,” the user wrote.

“Bloodsucking capitalist vampires,” one person posted. “Don’t you dare boast about your contribution to society!”

Hundreds of comments called for boycotting the Groupon-like platform, which gained market dominance by catering to the low-end ­e-commerce segment. Some vowed to block anyone who shared links to Pinduoduo deals, one of the key ways the company promotes itself.

The backlash against Pinduoduo comes as China’s largest tech companies face pressure from both the public and regulators. Pinduoduo rival Alibaba has found itself the focus of an ­anti-monopoly probe. Its founder, Jack Ma, who endorsed the 996 work schedule, has been absent from public view for weeks.

After reports of the first Pinduoduo death, China’s official Xinhua News Agency called for shorter work hours and criticized the industry’s “abnormal culture of overtime.” Shanghai labor regulators said they had launched an investigation into the company.

On the Quora-like forum Zhihu, labor rights lawyer Yuan Yayang, who said he is helping Wang with a lawsuit against Pinduoduo, asked the company to respond to allegations raised in the video and called on regulators to publicize their probe.

“A week has passed, but where are the investigation results by Shanghai labor inspection department?” the lawyer asked in another post.

Dissatisfaction with “996” has ben building for years, coming to the fore in 2019, when Internet users started a GitHub project called “996.ICU” to drive home the point that working such hours ultimately ends in a visit to the intensive care unit. The project hosts thousands of complaints about companies, including telecommunications giant Huawei and ByteDance, the company behind TikTok.

While cases such as those at Pinduoduo have reignited scrutiny of tech company practices, industry observers are skeptical that a real shift is possible, especially when such jobs are still highly coveted for their pay and prestige.

“I’m hopeful about change but also know that ‘company culture’ has not been a unique hiring advantage in China as much as it has been in the West,” said Lillian Li, a Beijing-based tech analyst. “The big issue is that China is not short on STEM talent. So the imbalance in the labor market drives a lot of this behavior.”

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