The Chinese word Guòláosǐ (过劳死), loaned from the Japanese word Karōshi (過労死), means death from overwork, and recent history teaches us that China has, for some time now, suffered from such cases. In December of 2017, at the age of 31, surgeon Feng Peihu collapsed mid surgery and died from what was officially reported as, “Illness triggered by long-term fatigue”, in Yu’an District, Anhui province.
A letter released by the hospital spoke of Feng’s dedication to his patients, stating he “was like a candle, burning himself to light others”. The letter also ordered all other departments to “study Feng”, conduct panel meetings, write reports and chair discussions in order to better understand “the spirit of Feng”.
Medical workers became enraged and hit back with statements about not wanting to be like Feng, rather wanting to remain alive. According to a report by Jiayun Feng, writing for SupChina, in 2017, more than 31 cases of sudden doctor deaths surfaced on Chinese media. Xinhua News has reported that around 600,000 Chinese workers die every year from overwork, far surpassing Japan.
Between April and June of 2016, ten journalists and editors died, one of them an associate editor at Reddit, who collapsed at a subway station in Beijing, according to the Straits Times of Singapore. A report by the Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy, entitled The Association Between Chinese Doctors Workload and Medical Disputes, concluded that, “Chinese doctor’s workload is on rapid rise. The increasing workload was associated with medical disputes. Interventions aimed at reducing doctor’s workload are necessary”.
Overtime is common in China, and in many situations, almost expected, in order to stay on top. In 2013, Gabriel Li, a 24-year-old working for Ogilvy PR, died after he had a heart attack at his desk. Controversy over his death arose when the Yangtze Evening Post cited sources whom had said Li died after working overtime for 1 month.
Elsewhere, Russian model Vlada Dzyuba, who was only 14-years-old at the time, died in 2017 after participating in the Shanghai Fashion Week. The Siberian Times reported her death as “meningitis exacerbated by extreme overwork”. While an outpouring of sympathy for the girl surfaced on social media, some comments raised eyebrows, such as that from the user synqqt; “This is the Chinese work schedule, we work a lot more overtime than foreigners do”, and “Why was a 14-year-old sent alone to a foreign country to work instead of attending classes and finishing school, and why did she get a visa?” from another.
BBC Russia spoke with Natalia Averchenko, a model who worked in China for two years. “Chinese customers do not notice your fatigue. And constantly urged – hurry, because of payment by the hour. By the way, a break for lunch, and sometimes just a trip to the toilet, is deducted from the payment… All models know that China is one of the most difficult markets for work. But it is also one of the most profitable. They [models] will prefer inhuman working conditions in China to Paris and Milan – if only they would pay”.
Competition in China is rife, especially amongst fresh graduates. Job satisfaction has recently decreased as young Chinese people seek more “meaningful” positions. As a result, young people are more likely to jump ship in pursuit of such goals, but for those who wish to remain in their position, working overtime is not an option, for in a country with 1.3b people, there is always someone waiting to take your place.