When Chinese banking regulator Li Jianhua sat down to work on the night of April 22, he probably had no idea that he was writing his last report. The 48-year-old simply collapsed the next morning, having overworked himself through the night. His sudden death elicited mixed reactions from various sections of Chinese society. While his employers – the Chinese Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) – are calling him ‘a model for party members and cadres’, many people are taking to social media to express outrage over the incident.
Li, who joined the Communist Party in 1985, worked for the government in securities and banking regulation. He was brought into the CBRC in 2005, to improve the standards of trust financing – one of the most sensitive areas of China’s financial sector. Li was personally responsible for overseeing investments worth at least $6 trillion. His colleagues remember him as a busy man who never discussed his personal problems, and had very little time for his family.
According to news reports, Li had little regard for his health and always chose work over personal well-being. He had once suffered a terrible outbreak of shingles, but he still chose to carry on with an inspection tour to Hunan province. In early April, his doctor noticed a few disturbing symptoms and advised him to visit the hospital for a checkup. In response, he simply smiled and said he didn’t have any time. A few weeks later, he was dead.
Li’s personal and professional lives were so disconnected that when his wife wanted to notify his office about his death, she had no idea whom to call. She finally found someone who could pass along the message. In response, CBRC conducted a thorough investigation into Li’s death. The statement they released on June 10 said that Li had been up late at home and “collapsed while working, suddenly dying in the early morning of April 23.”
The statement further urged the people of China to follow Li’s example. “We can all learn from Comrade Li Jianhua, who always had firm ideals and beliefs, who showed that he was an employee who was loyal to the cause of the Party and the people, who gave an unremitting struggle to perform his best and sacrifice everything. It was done with the goal of enhancing the quality of our work. Comrade Li Jianhua did long overtime, night and day, and put all his energy and passion into the regulatory business.”
Photo: Bleeding Pencil
Death by overworking, as it turns out, is not uncommon in China. Statistics show that over 600,000 Chinese die every year from working too hard. In fact, the phenomenon has become so common that they even have a special term for excessive overtime deaths: ‘guolaosi’. According to Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, “China is still a rising economy and people are still buying into that hardworking ethos.”
“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,” Kingston explained. “Any job worth doing is worth doing excessively.” Expecting this kind of sentiment, Chinese employers often tend to overburden their employees, a fact that not everyone is happy about. Local microblogging website Weibo is filled with complaints about stress and terrible work-life balance. “What’s the point of working overtime so you can work to death?” a frustrated employee wrote.
Photo: Global Times
Weibo recently posted news about three other work-related deaths – a 24-year-old junior employee at Ogilvy Public Relations, a 25-year-old auditor at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and one of the chief designers at Shenyang Aircraft Corp – all struck down in their prime. The auditor, based in Shanghai, had written on her personal blog that she was suffering fevers and badly needed a vacation. It isn’t clear if she was ever granted one. The Ogilvy employee died in May 2013; he cried out and keeled over as he stood from his desk and collapsed.
Yang Heqing, Dean of the School of Labor Economics at Beijing’s Capital University of Economics and Business, pointed out that Chinese society combines a modern pursuit of riches with an ancient belief in putting the community above the individual. “In China there’s still a 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 Yang. “But don’t forget, overwork also causes harm to the nation and to the family.”
The Chinese government slowly appears to be acknowledging the plight of its workforce. “We have noticed that excessive overtime in China has become an issue,” said Tim de Meyer, the director of the International Labour Organization’s China Office. “It is worrying as a physical and mental health hazard.” But it might be a long time before things really start changing; as of now, the Chinese continue to overwork themselves, family photos are rarely seen in offices, and children of urban professionals are raised by grandparents in distant provinces.