996 ICU initiator Chen Yuan sentenced to 5 years in prison

Chen Yuan, a Chinese programmer, initiated the 996.ICU project and coined the slogan “Work 996, get sick ICU,” has been sentenced to 5 years in prison and deprived of political rights for 5 years for the crime of “subverting state power.” According to screenshots of documents from the Changsha Intermediate People’s Court in Hunan Province circulated by netizens Chen Yuan, the initiator of the 996.ICU project established a company to “apply for funds from overseas organizations, disguised under the guise of ‘projects,’ and engaged in activities that subvert state power and overthrow the socialist system, seriously endangering national security and social stability.” Therefore, the court determined that Chen Yuan constituted the crime of “subverting state power” and sentenced him to 5 years in prison and deprived him of political rights for 5 years.

Although the judge stated that “if you are dissatisfied with this judgment, you can appeal to this court or directly to the Hunan Provincial Higher People’s Court within ten days from the second day of receiving the judgment,” according to Chen Yuan’s wife Shi Minglei, who has already arrived in the United States, she was also falsely accused of “subverting state power” by the secret police and forced to write a guarantee letter. National security personnel even used Shi Minglei’s daughter as a threat, saying, “If you don’t cooperate, I will bring your daughter in for questioning together.”

The “996 work system” in China refers to a working hours system where employees are expected to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, without receiving overtime pay. Sometimes it describes a series of labor practices where employers demand extended working hours without providing additional compensation. The “996 work system” is prevalent in Internet companies and some research and development enterprises. According to the creator of the “996. ICU” website, many Internet companies such as, ByteDance, Huawei, Alibaba, and have been blacklisted, with Huawei ranking first.

It is reported that on March 27, 2019, a project called “996. ICU” was uploaded to GitHub. On the website pointed to by the project, Chen Yuan, the initiator, wrote, “What is 996.ICU? Work 996, get sick ICU.”

Chen Yuan compared the minimum 72 working hours under the 996 work system with articles such as the “Labor Contract Law” and criticized the irrationality of the 996 work system while calling for “Developers’ lives matter.”

Due to the support of numerous computer programmers, the project initiated by Chen Yuan garnered public attention to the work-related health issues faced by programmers, thus being officially defined as a “rebellion” by programmers.

Subsequently, on July 22, 2019, Chen Yuan was taken away by state security personnel in Changsha, Hunan Province, and later charged with “subverting state power.” It was previously disclosed that after Chen Yuan’s arrest, the lawyer he hired was forcibly dismissed by state security and replaced with a government-appointed lawyer, and a secret trial was held in 2021.

Recently, Chen Yuan, who has been unable to communicate with the outside world for a long time, finally met with his relatives at Chishan Prison in Hunan. According to Shi Minglei’s disclosure to Radio Free Asia, Chen Yuan was physically abused and humiliated by the prison authorities while in solitary confinement last year. She said, “They (the police) demanded that Chen Yuan write ideological reports. When Chen Yuan refused, they demanded that he stand at attention for twelve hours daily. Every night when he was sleeping, he was awakened every hour and forced to stand up as a punishment. He had to use toilet water to wash his face, brush his teeth, wash dishes, and even drink water. From July last year, Chen Yuan has not made a phone call to his family because the authorities require him to kneel on one knee and make a report before he is allowed to make a call.”

Chen Yuan, who has been sentenced to 5 years in prison, is expected to be released next year. The family believes that the measures taken by Chishan Prison are illegal and plans to file a lawsuit against the prison and appeal for Chen Yuan. However, no lawyer is willing to take up the case. Shi Minglei said, “The lawyers we have approached initially agreed, but when it came to the family’s request to go to the prison, they all said that the law firm did not approve the procedures. We suspect that their law firm has been threatened.”

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