by Olivia Yijian Liu, doctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo.
In early 2023, the term “human mine” or “huminerals” (renkuang 人矿) has sparked a widespread discussion on the Chinese Internet (China Digital Times, 2023). The term first appeared in 1984 in the People’s Daily to describe Chinese workers as a kind of material resource for economic development. Forty years later, young talents in the high-tech industry have used the term to criticise how their lives are used as “consumables” and exploited continuously. What is the underlying logic behind the sudden popularity of the term? How do young talents in urban China experience their work and life?
The rapid expansion of China’s high-tech industry has attracted young talent from the best universities of the country and overseas. They seek a decent income, self-improvement, and generally consider overwork and chronic stress to be acceptable.
The concept of “humineral” is closely tied to the notion of the “striving individual” of China (Yan, 2013). A common urge to succeed and the accompanying anxiety push many Chinese individuals to strive at work (ibid., p. 272). Many work, on and off, roughly 72 hours per week. This is known as 9-9-6, i.e. working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., 6 days per week. Some even work roughly 84 hours per week, known as 0-0-7, i.e. working from midday to midnight, 7 days per week. Basically, working on Saturdays and Sundays is widely accepted as the norm. Common words that were used to describe the abnormal working schedules are “big-week and small-week” (daxiaozhou 大小周), i.e. one week of six workdays, followed by one week of five workdays, “single rest-day” (danxiu 单休), i.e. one week of six workdays, and 5.5 workdays.
The premise of this overwork culture is the unwritten rule that prevails at many high-tech companies, which pride themselves on having a young average employee age. As an ethnographer researching the field of entrepreneurship in China, I joined the training and orientation sessions dedicated to interns and entry-level positions in a high-tech start-up based in Shenzhen in July 2020. I was sitting with around 20 other new staff members in a seminar room, and I was surprised to learn how young the newcomers were, ranging between 20 and 22 years old. At 25 years of age, I was the oldest intern in the room. After familiarising myself with the company, I noticed that peers in their late 20s often took on the role of managers and group leaders in charge of interns or a small team.
The term “35-year-old crisis” was frequently mentioned in the Chinese high-tech industry. This is often associated with the perception of employers that employees aged 35 years and above are “too old” and “cannot do it anymore,” and therefore need to “be optimised,” a euphemism for being laid off. In the tech industry, optimisation is often used to describe the process of improving a technology, a prototype, or a business model to make it more desirable and efficient. When applied to the strategic management of human resources of a tech company, the term implies that middle-aged employees are less desirable and in need of being replaced by more “cost-effective” graduates who can and will work harder for less pay. Many entrepreneurs openly admitted that they deliberately tried to recruit striving and young employees who let their private and working life overlap with no overtime payment.
Facing the risk of downsizing and age discrimination, many in Shenzhen who have the financial burden of raising a child or paying off a mortgage saw sacrifice with crazy working hours as necessary to become “less replaceable” in the high-tech labour market when they approach the age of 35 or older. I often heard striving talents take pride in how much they worked saying, “I worked until 4 a.m.” or “Work is all I do”. I simultaneously saw how much stress they had to bear.
In fact, many Chinese workers were aware that the humineral lifestyle was unsustainable and detrimental to their health. Young employees in their 20s shared that they found reading their yearly physical examination report scary because the majority had health problems. Moreover, the story of a 24-year-old Chinese high-tech giant employee who suddenly died at home after working overtime for several days in a row recently went viral on social media. Such tragic stories are nothing new. Just a few months ago, a young female employee of a high-tech firm (born in 1998), worked overtime until 1:30 a.m. and died suddenly on her way home.
During my fieldwork, I noted that some educated workers chose to escape their precarious work in the high-tech industry to embrace a different lifestyle. Their decision to return to their hometown from tier-one Chinese cities, which also means less income and lower social status, reflects individual choice in employment and lifestyle. Although many faced moral tension when making such a decision.
To this end, what seems to underpin China’s booming high-tech sectors in recent years are waves of young striving talents coming or returning to tier-one Chinese cities, and their temporary lifespan as huminerals for self-actualisation. Such striving practices allow for China’s rapid development but also lead to chronic stress, insecurity, and fragile well-being. The frequent critique mentioned by high-tech workers on the ground regarding human life as a humineral appears as a sign of the coming change of an unsustainable development model. If this happens it will significantly change China’s economic future.
China Digital Times (2023) Mingan ciku: Renkuang 敏感词库: 人矿 [Internet]. Available from https://chinadigitaltimes.net/chinese/691753.html [Accessed 09 January 2023].
Yan, Y. (2013) Aferword: The drive for Success and the Ethics of the Striving Individual. In: Stafford C., ed. Ordinary Ethics in China. London, Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 263–292.
Olivia Yijian Liu is a doctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo. Her PhD was a part of the Brokex project, funded by the European Research Council Starting Grant (grant agreement No 802070). She holds a MSc at the University of Oxford and a BA at the University of Pisa. Her research focuses on entrepreneurship and innovation in China. She has done 7 months of ethnographic fieldwork in South China’s tech industry, e.g., start-ups, makerspaces, and incubators in 2020 and 2021.