A star worker’s suicide at Tencent

Society & Culture

Chinese tech company workers and internet users are less than satisfied with Tencent’s explanation of a young employee’s suicide.

The Chengdu office of TiMi Studio. Oriental Image via Reuters Connect

Content Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.

If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, there are people who want to help: In the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255. In China, the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center can be reached at 800-810-1117 or 010-8295-1332. Also, there is a list of suicide and emergency helpline around the world with links to more detailed hotlines.

Earlier this week, employees at Tencent, the Chinese tech giant behind WeChat, were hit with an internal memo about the death of a young colleague. 

“On the morning of December 11, Máo Xīngyún 毛星云, an excellent employee at the company, who worked on the PC/Console Rendering Team, left us forever,” wrote Qín Yàlín 秦亚林, general manager of TiMi Studio, a subsidiary of Tencent Games. “During the five plus years he was with Tencent, we were impressed by his competence. His performance was outstanding and he always held himself to high standards.”

The email was ambiguous about the circumstances surrounding Mao’s death, which was described by Qin as “unexpected” and “unfortunate.” The letter noted that Mao was hospitalized in the summer and returned to work in October, but Qin didn’t specify the cause of his medical leave, saying that the company opted to withhold the information out of respect for his family’s wishes.

Since the news of his sudden passing was made public, an outpouring of grief and condolences flooded the Chinese internet. In media reports, Mao’s death was collectively referred to as an “accident,” and Tencent was portrayed as a compassionate and responsible employer eager to help Mao’s family financially in their time of mourning.

The China Vibe.

Subscribe to The China Vibe, our society and culture newsletter, to get a free weekly roundup of the most interesting stories from China.

But in the past few days, a different version of the story — told and corroborated by former and current employees of Tencent — slowly surfaced on social media. In direct rebuttal to Qin’s description of the situation, several anonymous sources revealed on Weibo that Mao had actually died by suicide. While catching up on work on Saturday, the 30-year-old renowned game developer, they said, jumped off the roof of an office building at Kexing Science Park in Shenzhen, where Tencent’s gaming department is located.

Noting that Wang had been battling severe depression for years, which at one point this year led to a two-months hospitalization, many of them argued that Tencent was at fault — for allegedly placing unrealistic expectations on Mao and forcing him to work excruciatingly long hours.

The most passionate voice calling out Tencent on its fierce work culture came from Weibo user Goose Factory Surveillance Brother (@鹅厂监控哥). As the subject of a high-profile labor dispute involving Tencent, the former employee of the company, identified in public only by his last name Yan, sued the internet giant three years ago, alleging that Tencent fired him illegally on the grounds that he refused to work overtime. 

“Back then, they put me in a small group of people, including my supervisor, a project manager, and a human resources person. In the four months leading up to my dismissal, they made the work environment so toxic for me that I got depressed and wanted to jump off a building multiple times,” Yan wrote (in Chinese). “Tencent’s memo and all the news articles suggested that Mao’s suicide was a response to personal struggles. But why is no one talking about the fact that the incident happened on a Saturday, when Mao was working outside his regular hours?”

At this point, it’s no longer a secret that Tencent has a chronic overworking problem. In May, a 21-year-old intern for Lightspeed & Quantum Studios, a game developer owned by Tencent Games, leapt to her death (in Chinese) from an office building at Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzhen, the same place where Mao took his life. The intern’s social media presence, which frequently featured posts of her venting about waking up early and working on weekends, suggested that she was unhappy with the pressure-cooker environment at Tencent. 

In the same month, Tencent executive Zhāng Jūn 张军 lambasted China’s youth for sleeping too much. His comment, made during the Labor Day holiday, quickly became a springboard for people to voice their frustration, which has come under increasing scrutiny this year after the deaths of several exhausted workers in China’s tech sector, including a 22-year-old employee at ecommerce firm Pinduoduo. “You should feel lucky that we were sleeping, rather than hanging capitalists like you on street lamps,” a Weibo user wrote at Zhang. 

But Mao’s passing seemed to have struck a special chord with the public. Before joining Tencent, Mao was awarded “most valuable expert” by Microsoft China in 2014. Aside from authoring various game development textbooks, he was a star employee at Tencent, where he was in charge of developing multiple high-budget titles. Yet despite his influence in the Chinese gaming industry and the senior position he held at Tencent, Mao was not immune to the grinding hours and heavy workloads that rank-and-file employees were subjected to. In interviews with Dahe Daily, a Chinese newspaper based in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, sources close to Mao said (in Chinese) that he was “extremely” busy with work. Online rumors also indicated that Mao’s development team was marginalized by Tencent recently due to failures in reaching performance milestones.

As the news of his suicide spread, an old post by Mao started to make the rounds on Weibo. “I have a dream that one day many AAA titles won’t have to be localized into Chinese because they are developed by us, written in Chinese, and have Chinese influence,” he wrote (in Chinese) in 2014. By ending his 30-year-long life early, Mao will never be able to realize his dream. And his tragic death, according to many observers on Weibo, was a direct result of Tencent’s mistreatment of talented employees with great ambitions. “It’s the company culture at Tencent that prevents it from creating AAA titles,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). “Mao put his trust and faith in the wrong person.”