Debate is raging in the Chinese technology sector over the merits or shortcomings of what is popularly known as “996” – working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week – a common practice in companies such as the Alibaba Group.

Jack Ma Yun, the Alibaba Group founder and outgoing chairman, started the debate. Last Thursday, he gave a speech to company staff, suggesting that they should be ready to work 12 hours a day because it is a huge privilege, in his view, to serve its clients. He went on to say that some people and companies can only dream of a 996 routine.

“If you don’t work 996 when you are young, when will you?” Ma asked. “Do you think never having to work 996 in your life is an honor to boast about? If you don’t put out more time and energy than others, how can you achieve the success you want?”

His comments quickly went viral because they clearly contradicted the basic “work life-balance” doctrine in a country where most workers traditionally took a two-hour lunch and sleep break.

Most notably there was a chat group titled “996 ICU” which suggested that the working hours of technology giants such as JD.com and Huawei technologies will make their employees more vulnerable to time spent in intensive care units (ICUs).

Ma, who will retire in September, apparently softened his stance in the wake of the heated discussion it prompted with explanations on his Weibo account in a message on Friday and another on Sunday.

“No one likes working at a company that forces you to do ‘996’. Not only is it inhumane, it’s unhealthy and even more unsustainable for long periods – plus workers, relatives and the law do not approve of it,” he said. “In the long term, even if you pay a higher salary, employees will all leave.”

He added companies that thought they could profit by forcing staff to work overtime were “foolish” and doomed to fail.

“If you find a job you like, the 996 problem does not exist; if you’re not passionate about it, every minute of going to work is a torment,” said Ma.

In his conclusion, Ma said he would rather not give a politically correct speech to please those who want to have achievements but don’t want to work hard. He said companies should not force their employees to work overtime but young people should understand “no pain, no gain”.

As for Ma himself, he told reporters in an 2017 interview that he regretted working so hard and being unable to devote enough time to his family. “If I could live again, I would absolutely not have a life like this,” he said.