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WeChat is ruining work-life balance, and one local government wants to fix it

In China, WeChat is for both work and play, but one Zhuhai district wants the right to disconnect

This article originally appeared on ABACUS
Technology has improved many aspects of work, but mobile tech has also introduced one major problem for people trying to enjoy their time off the clock: Being constantly available. Now a district in one Chinese city is fed up with people who keep texting about work after hours and wants to put a stop to it.

The local government of Xiangzhou district in Zhuhai (the Chinese city across the border from Macau) proposed banning the practice for government employees at the beginning of the month.

The sentiment is not unique to China. Back in 2017, France introduced the “ right to disconnect“ in a law that gives French workers the freedom to ignore work emails and other forms of communication once they're out of the office. Each company decides how to implement this on its own.
Many countries have proposed similar laws, with Germany, Italy, the Philippines and Spain having already adopted them. A similar bill was even proposed in New York City last year, although it hasn’t been passed.

But in China, disconnecting from work obligations can be more difficult. Unlike in the West, where people tend to use email or work-optimized apps like Slack, China's online communication -- whether with a boss or family -- revolves around just one app: WeChat.

WeChat, the app that does everything

This means that for many, it's getting harder to separate private and work communication. Xiangzhou district published the announcement as part of a measure to reduce the burden on government workers and standardize WeChat communication.

“WeChat groups originally served to improve working efficiency but [with more and more groups forming] it has become a heavy working burden to employees,” said the district’s proposal, which ironically was published on their official WeChat account. “In principle, one company can only form one WeChat group [and] the group for a project should be disbanded after it is done.”

Xiangzhou district’s proposal is also aimed at curbing unnecessary chitchat. The post noted that workers should not randomly send messages or post emojis in the WeChat group unless it’s really important.

WeChat has proven convenient for work in many ways. Like many other chat apps, WeChat can be used for video conferencing and sending images and documents. The app offers more than just that, though, including the ability to split a lunch bill with colleagues and issuing purchase invoices for reimbursements.

And everyone is already there: The platform has 1 billion users, with almost 90% of them using it for work on a daily basis.

This isn’t the only reason why WeChat spread so fast through offices, though. Chinese internet users have long shunned email and the country tends to have a more flexible work culture.
WeChat has even tried to create a dedicated work app, unimaginatively called WeChat Work. The app has yet to beat its original incarnation with just 30 million active users in 2017, according to a report from the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology.

Without a dedicated work chat app, Chinese users are stuck with the one app that does everything, including merging work and personal communication.

In France, the right to disconnect came about after a report indicated that being constantly on alert leads to cognitive and emotional overload and fatigue. But aside from one district in Zhuhai, most of China has not been moving in the direction of adopting similar laws. Some online commentators on Weibo believe that it never will.
However, Chinese workers, especially those working in the fast-paced tech industry, have recently voiced other complaints about their work-life balance. The country’s grueling 996 work culture -- working 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week -- has been criticized by China’s developer community and resulted in an online protest that some Chinese companies have tried to block. Not everyone hates the 996 culture, though. China’s tech capitalists seem to be fans.

For more insights into China tech, sign up for our tech newsletters, subscribe to our Inside China Tech podcast, and download the comprehensive 2019 China Internet Report. Also roam China Tech City, an award-winning interactive digital map at our sister site Abacus.