China’s social e-commerce giant Pinduoduo has found itself caught in a growing public relations crisis after conflicting public statements in response to the death of an employee, who collapsed on the way home after working long hours.
PDD confirmed on Monday that a 22-year-old employee, a woman surnamed Zhang, collapsed at around 1:30am on December 29 while walking home from work with colleagues and later died in a hospital. The case sparked an investigation into the company by the Shanghai authorities, criticism from China’s state broadcaster CCTV and renewed discussion on social media about the notorious “996” long-hours work culture at tech companies.
PDD’s first public statement expressed sadness at the death, condolences for the family, and included pleas from Zhang’s father not to embroil her death in controversy. However, a social media post expressing different sentiments prompted a backlash from netizens, with some calling the company “cold-blooded”.
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An image, appearing to be a screenshot from Pinduoduo’s official account on China’s Quora-like platform Zhihu, went viral on Monday and showed an answer to a question from a netizen asking for people’s thoughts on Zhang’s death and the company’s responsibilities.
“Look at people in the underclass: which of them is not exchanging life for money? I have never thought of this as a problem of capital, it is more a problem of society. We are living in a time where people hustle at the expense of their lives. You can choose a comfortable life but you have to accept the consequences of comfortable living. People can control how much effort they make – we all can,” the post, under the PDD official account, stated.
PDD at first said the Zhihu screenshot was fake but Zhihu issued a statement on Monday evening confirming it was written under PDD’s official account but was later deleted. PDD then published another statement explaining that it was written by an employee from a third-party company that manages Pinduoduo’s social media accounts, who was expressing a personal opinion and had failed to switch to his personal account.
A spokesperson for Zhihu said on Tuesday that the “Pinduoduo account has not been strictly managed, which has had an adverse social impact and in line with relevant regulations, it has been suspended for 15 days.” PDD’s account on the platform is now unavailable. PDD did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
The online backlash to the Zhihu post has continued, despite it being deleted.
“An employee just died and the company responded with this? It is indeed cold-blooded,” one post on Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo reads. Many people called on the public to hold Pinduoduo to account.
Meanwhile, CCTV posted a short commentary on Weibo on Monday evening, saying that people should not “trade life for money”.
“[We] should avoid employees staying late to work overtime. It is equally important for employers to strictly regulate labour security, for relevant departments to strengthen supervision, and protect the strugglers,” wrote CCTV in the post.
PDD confirmed on Monday evening that the labour security authority of the Shanghai Changning District, where the company is headquartered, is investigating working conditions at the company.
PDD has not provided further details on the cause of Zhang’s death and there is not a police investigation into whether overwork was involved.
Zhang‘s death came only days after news that Pinduoduo’s founder, Colin Huang, is now China’s second-richest person. Founded in 2015, the company has quickly become China‘s second-largest e-commerce platform, garnering over 731 million active buyers.
Pinduoduo recently announced a move into the billion-dollar community group buying market via its new business unit Duoduo Maicai, the department where Zhang worked.