IM Motors CEO Liu Tao Praises Overwork, Violation of Labor Laws

At an April 8 press conference to unveil IM Motors’ new L6 electric sedan, company CEO Liu Tao enumerated the many sacrifices his workers had made, which suggested to some observers that the company’s punishing schedules were likely in violation of Chinese labor laws. Backlash on Chinese social media was swift, with many commenters criticizing the glorification of overwork and proposing that consumers not buy vehicles made by a company that treats its workforce so poorly. In response to this backlash, Alibaba- and SAIC-backed IM Motors complained that it was the victim of “organized cyber-bullying” attacks.

During the press conference, Liu Tao offered these words of fulsome praise for the sacrifices his workers had made:

Some of our colleagues may even have missed the birth of their own children. Others tested positive [for COVID] several times in quick succession, yet they remained on the “front lines” and continued their hard work. Other colleagues steeled their hearts and sent their young children to boarding schools, and were only able to see them briefly once a week. [Chinese]

In an essay by WeChat account @麦杰逊 (màijiéxùn), which focuses on social commentary, the author was incredulous at Liu Tao’s paean to his overworked employees: “In this day and age, why the hell would you think ‘hard work’ would be a big selling point for cars? Is that your company’s only advantage—the most awesome thing about your cars is that your employees ‘work really hard?’” The essay, which framed the CEO’s comments as emblematic of the chasm between struggling assembly-line workers and profit-seeking corporate elites, also included a screenshot of some online reactions to Liu Tao’s speech. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard someone declare at a press conference that he violates labor laws,” wrote one. Another poked fun at the intense rivalry between electric vehicle makers IM Motors and Xiaomi, by referencing IM Motor’s self-inflicted wound: “Xiaomi: ‘I didn’t touch him, I swear—he just suddenly stabbed himself!’” 

Another essay, from WeChat account @声道 (shēngdào), delved into the background of the rivalry between Xiaomi and IM Motors, noting the many recent PR missteps and unforced errors made by IM Motors. The essay’s author took particular umbrage at CEO Liu Tao’s glorification of employee suffering, and included a screenshot of even more social media responses to Liu’s speech. One commenter wondered, “How can state-owned enterprises be even more ruthless than capitalists?” Another wrote, “This is classic ‘old state-owned-enterprise style’ fanatical devotion,” to which another social media user responded, “What he said at the press conference was obviously directed at [China’s] political leaders.” Other comments questioned the legality of pressuring workers who had tested positive for COVID to remain on the production lines.

The controversy over Liu Tao’s remarks occurs as many Chinese workers are rethinking and rebelling against the oppressive culture of overwork that has characterized much of China’s high-growth period. Younger workers in particular have chafed against brutal “996” work schedules (12-hour days, six days a week), and some have responded to “involution” (burnout) by choosing to quit, downsize, or “lie flat” (slack off). (For updated definitions and usage examples of “involution,” “lie flat,” and over 100 popular online terms, see our recent ebook, China Digital Times Lexicon: 20th Anniversary Edition.) Even now, despite numerous court rulings against excessive “996” working schedules, there are still frequent reports of young workers—particularly in the high-tech and medical sectors—dying of overwork, lack of sleep, delayed medical care, or stress-induced despair.


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