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The biz of biz in China (Part 1)

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Prepare to be a jiabanist

How many times have I asked fellow Mac user group people to come to a meeting? And how many times was the answer, "Nope, I'm jiaban right now!"? If I could get a penny for every jiaban excuse (lame or well-grounded they may be), I could easily be on my way to a Porsche Boxster.

Jiaban (加班) - Chinese for doing overtime work - is, in essence, an almost-inalienable part of working in China, in particular for locals. Locals type away at their office computers on Saturdays and, at times, on Sundays as well. Social events are sacrificed in favour working overtime, as overtime pay can bring that extra yuan or two in.

To many a Westerner - a committed nine-to-fiver - overtime work is probably something more close to an emergency break - pull (and work overtime) only if you must. The Chinese pull this break, however, at an alarming rate. A Western jiaban "emergency break" (so to speak) remains in almost pristine condition through the course of a year, while the Chinese version looks like the kid toyed around with it too much.

Jiaban is likely to happen more in startups and SMEs as they have quite a bit of work to deal with. This is not to say that big, established companies don't do jiaban, but as with all things - starting up is hard to do (or to do well, at that), so it's not really that much of a surprise if a startup has to work excess hours just to get something rolling.

Much do about nothing

So what happens inside the average Chinese office? As yours truly experienced it in person, surprisingly little in terms of real, decent work being done. While refilling his cup of warm tea at the work place this time last year, he found his co-workers watching Taiwanese comedy shows, lying on the sofa, or chatting with friends (not fellow colleagues) using MSN/Windows Live Messenger or QQ.

Scarier stories come from state-owned enterprises, where the über-unproductive idea of "paying you something even if you do nothing" holds true. If you're on an internship, you pretty much get the lion's share of time free, but stuck inside an office.

This apparent low rate of productivity could turn into something meatier (and it's not good for China), and could put the brakes on the whole system. In fact, the whole thing's gone to such an extent that some companies spy on what their employees are up to (privacy is not that big of a term in China as is the case in the West).

When the you at work transcends into the private you

In the West, we're used to keeping at least two boxes of contacts; those we meet at the workplace, and those we meet back at home. If it's 5pm (or 6pm), you leave the office, and that's the end of you in employer/employee form. You return home to your wife or husband and kids, and that's you in your private (secluded?) version.

In China, however, it's not rare that the nine-to-five you continues after 5pm. Weekend calls from fellow colleagues are only recently being targeted as somewhat intrusive, and working on Sundays is not forbidden - some people (including yours truly!) work non-stop, seven days a week!

The only time that the nine-to-five you is concealed is during week-long holidays, in particular Chinese New Year. Right before the start of the New Year, new projects are concluded, work is finished at incredible speed, and when the fireworks light up the sky, Chinese biz people know that they have at least seven full days to tune out of their 9-to-5 selves.

Yours truly mixes both worlds. On Sundays, of course, he phones nobody except for his fellow Mac group friends (as he presently considers this a hobby) and his close friends. However, if he gets a work-related call (he never initiates one), this call is answered immediately and without delay. Work continues on an individual basis on Sundays with nary a hitch, but no new business-related correspondence is written; a day is given to everyone else to take a break, and plug out, while he continues with reduced work.

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