Chinese Anxiety—In Debate About Overwork, a Glimpse of Shifting Expectations

Almost half of all Chinese report feeling “more anxiety” now than they did five years ago. What, exactly, is driving these concerns, or increasing reports of these concerns? Avid followers of China-related news might immediately think of censorship and other restrictions on freedoms, yet reports show that the main sources of anxiety in China lie elsewhere. Furthermore, recent coverage of these concerns has revealed changes in the expectations, dreams, and demands of many Chinese.

Several days ago, a twenty-four-year-old employee of Ogilvy in Beijing died from sudden cardiac arrest, which initial reports say occurred after the employee worked overtime for one straight month. His last post on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, went viral, drawing countless comments from other overworked netizens, many of whom noted that China had become the number one country in the world for death by overwork.

Studies show that many Chinese are unhappy with their jobs—or lack thereof. This year, millions of Chinese students are graduating and face what is reportedly the worst job market in history. Even if they are able to find a job, their worries will not end. A recent Regus study showed China ranked first among eighty countries in workplace stress.

A video produced by Tencent News depicted sources of anxiety felt by Chinese in the workplace: financial troubles, interpersonal relationships, and endless overtime. While the short video included facts and figures about stress in China’s workforce, it focused on individual stories—a twenty-six-year-old who believes he will never be rich enough to buy a house and a low-level office worker who dreams of emigrating. Chinese increasingly see their anxieties and dreams as individual matters, rather than collective issues.

As China’s growth slows, the idea of a national revival—the Chinese Dream, as it is known in official parlance—stands at odds with the hopes and fears of the average Chinese, creating further cognitive dissonance. While state-run media and government bodies continue to focus on positive news about officials’ achievements and economic development, most Chinese have become far more concerned about food safety, the quality of manufactured goods, and the safety of medicine.

Given the number of social media-driven exposés that have drawn public attention over the past few years—on corrupt officials, rat meat scandals, and fake condoms, among other issues—it may be that increasing transparency is making it impossible to ignore issues that once simply flew under the radar. China’s rapidly growing middle class is already making its voice heard on these issues, and it is expected to swell to 40% of the population by 2020.

Despite the fact that anxiety has increased, Chinese overwhelmingly feel they are better off than they were five years ago. Cases like those of Mr. Li, the Ogilvy employee who reportedly died from overwork, may draw more attention because society increasingly values individuals’ lives and dreams.