ChinAI #127: Three Seconds Too Long in the Bathroom

A Caijing longread on the callousness of office automation

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Feature Translation: Algorithmically-Monitored Workers

Context: A deeply-sourced longread (link to original) on office automation in China, published last week by Caijing Magazine, a respected business and financial news platform known for publishing investigative, critical pieces. A sampling of the key passages follows, though I’d highly recommend checking out the full translation, which is nearly 6000 words.

The Hook:

In mid-December 2020, Shanghai saw its first cold snap. The northwest monsoon winds blew through the streets, urging pedestrians to wrap their coats tighter. At 11:30 in the evening, in front of a large private construction company on Caobao Road, Xuhui District, more than a dozen figures hurriedly opened the door with their work ID cards.

The group of people went upstairs in two elevators. They were talking and laughing just before, but at this time they were collectively silent. A young man tried to keep going with an inside joke but was stopped by his colleagues with stern eyes.

"The elevator's camera is connected to the office automation (OA) system, as well as recording equipment," a senior engineer Fu Cheng whispered after stepping out of the elevator. "This matter was kept confidential, but a guy who had left the job secretly told me."

The nuts and bolts of OA:

This office system is internally called the "Intelligent Task Distribution System", which the company commissioned an information technology company in Shanghai to develop. The developer claims that this system is developed in accordance with the characteristics of the "project system" of construction engineering companies. It has a powerful machine learning program that can automatically assign tasks to office groups according to the time nodes of each link of the project. It can also "improve employee work efficiency" by linking together cameras and punch cards throughout the company.

But the front-line employees' feelings of being managed by the system are not so good. The general reaction is that the system "does not consider people's feelings."

Supervisors needed no longer?

Wu Hao is the workshop supervisor of a foreign-funded electronic equipment manufacturing company in Wuxi…During the annual recruitment season, Wu Hao had the final decision on the employees assigned to his workshop. In his daily work, he was also responsible for the daily management, guidance, training and evaluation of the workshop employees. "I determined the daily tasks and performance indicators."

In the past, relatives in his hometown would always find him, begging him to hire their children into the workshop, and some workers and technicians secretly asked for "extra leniency" in performance appraisal and leave. All these made this man from the northwest "have a sense of accomplishment and work harder."

In 2019, the foundation of Wu Hao's workplace suddenly collapsed: the company began to introduce a fully intelligent employee management system.

"It is said that this was a command issued from the US headquarters. It must be enforced," said Wu Hao. "The technical department found an information company in Suzhou, developed it for half a year, and installed it in the factory."

The workshop terminal of the new system includes more than 20 cameras all over the workshop, an OA system that records all worker information, and an electronic attendance system at the entrance of the workshop. They have different functions:

The camera records the on-the-job status of all workers in the workshop and monitors their work efficiency. For example, each component has a prescribed processing time, and the system will recognize the worker's actions through the camera screen. If it takes too long, it will be reflected in the assessment of the worker at the end of the month, and performance merits will be deducted accordingly. The attendance staff will also manually review the system’s assessment results…

Some interesting insights into the benefits of guanxi practices

…Since the system has been running for more than a year, fewer and fewer people have engaged in guanxi practices with Wu Hao. This would appear to be more fair, but Wu Hao doesn't think so.

In his opinion, the close relationship between himself and the frontline workers has begun to be indifferent. In the past, he would always take care of workers who had urgent matters at home, such as not going through the process to grant them half-day leave to prevent them from using up the leave quota, and also by giving clever workers extra performance to encourage innovation in the assembly line and win over the hearts of the people…

…An event in the summer of 2019 was still fresh in Wu Hao's memory: a worker took 3 seconds to go to the bathroom beyond the prescribed time (the requirements for going to the bathroom are so precise? Yes, this is the most darkly humorous thing I have encountered in an interview, even going one second over will not cut it), the system deducted 50 RMB from his salary at the end of the month. The worker lodged a complaint, and Wu Hao called the human resources department to report, receiving a cold, one-sentence reply: Exceeding the time limit by one second is still exceeding the limit, and the rules and regulations must be followed.

This incident quickly spread throughout the workshop. "Old Wu is of no use anymore, now the people above only look at the computer." Wu Hao heard this type of comment while eating in the cafeteria.

Features some quotes from leading Chinese academics on OA, like this one:

Lingyun Qiu (associate prof. at Peking University), mentioned that existing research has found that if employees can participate in the algorithmic decision-making process, they will be more willing to follow instructions.

“If employees are allowed to make some simple inputs (to the algorithm), similar to even parameter settings, they will feel that they are involved in the decision-making process, which will reduce their feelings of alienation toward the algorithm, and they will not feel that they are completely controlled by the algorithm." But at the same time Lingyun Qiu pointed out that this requires companies to establish an effective feedback loop. “For example, if an employee is scheduled to work overtime for three consecutive weeks by the software, the system needs to design a feedback function—whether through the supervisor or the employee themselves —that allow employees to express their dissatisfaction with the algorithm.”

The tricks of the trade:

Recently, a netizen broke the news on Weibo that a technology startup in Hangzhou issued a batch of high-tech cushions that could sense body data to employees and required all employees to use it. Unexpectedly, employees discovered that the cushions were used to monitor employees' heart rate, breathing, sitting posture, fatigue and other data to investigate whether employees were "loafing on the job", which caused a lot of complaints…

But most employees are not aware of this (a large state-owned power company’s policy to track employees movements through employee cards). “The employee card has this function. We didn't know it before, but it's not surprising,” an employee said, "The current technology can completely guarantee that we have no privacy after entering the company."

Since money will be deducted, why would employees not know?

"Because the money deducted is the year-end bonus," Liu Fei (an employee of the company’s Party-Mass Work Department) uncovered the mystery, "Would ordinary people notice that the year-end bonus is short by 80 or 100 RMB? They would think it was for some tax expense." He said that this has already been used as a "secret" cost control method for several years, and it can save the company nearly one million RMB every year.

Liu Fei said that companies with similar operations are "not uncommon" in the industry: "We learned this from other industry partners. As far as I know, they also learned from some private enterprises."

Feifei Wong, an employee of a private scientific research company in Shanghai, encountered a similar incident. In August 2020, she chose to leave her job, but she did not expect the company to ask her to pay a loss of hundreds of yuan: "According to the company's assessment, leaving the park without authorization during working hours is considered a violation of labor discipline, and the data must be entered in the information database." Feifei Wong said. Perplexed, the human resources department immediately pulled out a list from the printer, which contained the records of her going out with access control during working hours in half a year, all in red.

"If you swipe your card during working hours, the system will automatically generate a red warning record,” human resources explained.

"I just went to the convenience store to buy a rice ball!" Feifei Wong felt wronged. Human resources responded that the labor discipline protocols had been known to her in black and white before she started the job, and the deduction of money was "reasonable.”

Digitization for digitization’s sake:

The companies that develop these systems are deeply familiar with procurers’ unreasonable algorithm requirements. One OA system development company marketing director who did not want to be named told the Caijing reporter that all kinds of companies that come to consult often "care more about the label of digitization so as to get subsidies from the government and superiors." As for the effectiveness and possibly negative effects of digitization, they "don't care.”

The end:

Just before Caijing published this piece, Fu Cheng's year-end award was also issued. Affected by the performance of his project team, it was 7,000 RMB less than the previous year. After receiving the text message, Fu Cheng posted a photo of him and his wife on a trip to Disneyland in his WeChat Moments, accompanied by the lyrics from the new album of the famous folk band "Omnipotent Youth Society [万能青年旅店]":

"Under the Milky Way,

An electronic wasteland. 

Hundreds of millions of ways of the world,

Hundreds of millions of mud that can defile a man."

FOR MORE, including a note on how the last line of this stanza is a reference to a poem by the legendary Chinese poet Du Fu, SEE FULL TRANSLATION: Algorithmically-Monitored Workers?

ChinAI Links (Four to Forward)

Must-read: The Immigration Preferences of Top AI Researchers: New Survey Evidence

A co-published paper by the Centre for the Governance of AI and Perry World House, from the team of Remco Zwetsloot, Baobao Zhang, Markus Anderljung, Michael C. Horowitz, Allan Dafoe

A survey of more than 500 active researchers who publish in the leading machine learning conferences. Here’s one of the many interesting findings: “Nearly 60 percent of respondents not currently based in the United States think there is a greater than one-in-four chance they will move there within the next three years. The same percentages are 35 percent for the United Kingdom, 28 percent for Canada, and 10 percent for China.”

Must-read: 'China-watching' is a lucrative business. But whose language do the experts speak?

An essential entry in the debate over whether China “experts” need to know Chinese, by Yangyang Cheng for The Guardian: As China develops from an impoverished backwater into the world’s second largest economy, many in the west have looked to it as fertile ground for promising careers. Their passion is not in Chinese history or culture, at least not as a priority. To the corporate elite, China is a market to be mined. To the security expert, China is a threat to be addressed. To the politicians and pundits, China is a “problem” to be solved. The lives and wellbeing of Chinese people, affected by policies, rhetoric and business deals, barely register in these discussions. Knowledge of the local language becomes irrelevant when the natives are presumed silent.

Should-read: Signals of strength: Capability demonstrations and perceptions of military power

A fascinating article by Evan Braden Montgomery, for Journal of Strategic Studies, on the importance of demonstrations to establish the credibility of military capabilities. An eye-opening historical analysis is followed by an analysis of how emerging technologies, including AI, could affect demonstration mechanisms.

Should-read: The Pandemic Is Propelling a New Wave of Automation 

By Will Knight for Wired, a great dive into the world of office automation, with some good details about how Covid has accelerated the process. It also makes important distinctions between the work that can be automated with RPA software vs. office automation enabled by machine learning systems.

Thank you for reading and engaging.

These are Jeff Ding's (sometimes) weekly translations of Chinese-language musings on AI and related topics. Jeff is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a researcher at the Center for the Governance of AI at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.

Check out the archive of all past issues here & please subscribe here to support ChinAI under a Guardian/Wikipedia-style tipping model (everyone gets the same content but those who can pay for a subscription will support access for all).

Any suggestions or feedback? Let me know at or on Twitter at @jjding99