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Founder of criticised after internal speech goes viral

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Founder of criticised after internal speech goes viral

Richard Liu ridiculed for changing definition of one of his best known phrases

The founder of one of China’s biggest ecommerce businesses has been ridiculed online after a recording of one of his internal speeches was shared on social media. 

Richard Liu (刘强东), the founder of, was delivering a speech to his management team during a virtual meeting on May 24. After it was leaked online, the speech became a top trending ”hot search” (热搜) term on social media.

In his speech, Liu announced changes to JD company policy. 

First, he intends to reward high performing employees in sales:

“If your performance is excellent, you may never have to work overtime. The company will always appreciate you and offer you a very competitive package. If your performance is just average, as long as you work hard, the company will never fire you. ”


He also announced that from July onwards, employees in the procurement and sales department (采销), two functions which are integrated in JD, will get a 25% increase in their base salary with unlimited performance-based bonus. And the cash bonus for managers will increase by 30%. 

Second, he will get rid of employees who are not performing or working hard enough.

“However, the company does not have a place for those who have poor performance and never work hard. These people will be removed from the company one by one. Anyone who has poor performance for a long time and never works hard is not my brother.”


It's the last sentence here, and particularly the phrase, “my brother”, which has triggered strong reactions.

Richard Liu, who also goes by the name “Brother Dong” (东哥), says “my brothers” a lot in internal speeches. 

He first said it in 2018, when he described all the employees of the company as “his brothers”, in response to rumours that JD was preparing for mass layoffs, promising that: 

JD will never sack any one of you, my brothers.


  • There are different ways to pronounce and say “brothers” (兄弟) depending on the context and meaning. Zoe explains more in the member podcast (including transcript)!

That put a stop to the rumours at the time, and it even became a popular meme. But in his comments this week, Richard Liu appears to have changed his definition of what “my brother” means, which is what has annoyed some people: 

When business is good, no one cares who counts as his brother. Richard Liu once said that he is not talking about people who slack off at work. For him, only those who share in happiness and hardship are true brothers. 

However, his definition was intentionally or unintentionally ignored. The outside world sees as a company where everyone is Liu’s brother. With Liu using this phrase again and again, perhaps some people really do believe that it is the case.


JD has struggled in recent years.

The company employs 550,000 staff in China, compared to only 20,000 employed by its competitor, PDD (拼多多), which generated over three times the profits of JD last year.

JD is facing trust issues within its workforce too.

It recently uncovered a “clocking-in” controversy (代打卡), where some employees asked colleagues to clock-in for them at their office workstation, while they stayed at home, sometimes for months on end.

According to some reports, over 10,000 JD employees are doing this every month.

But despite there being some sympathy for Richard Liu and JD, the majority of voices criticise him for going back on his word.

And for taking a step backwards towards a destructive and internally competitive working culture (known as “involuted” 内卷 in Chinese):

Richard Liu’s comments indicate he can’t come up with new ideas to deal with the zero-sum game. Instead, he has decided to step up on what he has been doing by exerting more pressure on the employees and intensifying the unproductive and unhealthy competition. 

刘强东的这番表态,意味着他想不出什么新模式来应对这种此消彼长的竞争压力,转而想进行内部动员,驱使所有人强化内卷,将旧模式运用到极致。 [3]

20th century writer, Lao She 老舍, was quoted in media commentary too:

In The Rickshaw Boy, Lao She wrote: The Rickshaw boy believes that if he works hard enough, he would one day have a rickshaw of his own. Even on his deathbed, he still believes he hasn’t achieved his dream because he has not yet worked hard enough. 

老舍在《骆驼祥子》中就写过:“祥子一直以为努力拉车,就会拥有一辆属于自己的黄包车,而祥子到死都认为他未能过上好日子,是因为拉车不够努力。” [3]

The Rickshaw Boy (骆驼祥子), the character in Lao She’s book of the same name, has become a metaphor in modern China for over-worked, underpaid employees of big tech firms, like JD.

You can read more about how a little knowledge of Lao She 老舍 and Lu Xun 鲁迅 can go a long way in this Deep Dive last year

So, that’s what we’re learning about this week!

Favourite Five

Artwork by Derek Zheng for RealTime Mandarin

1. 食言 shí yán

eat words; go back on one's word

你别管什么原因,刘强东这么修改兄弟的定义那就是食言 - No matter what the reason might be, Richard Liu broke his promise when he re-interpreted the term “brother”. [2]

2. 打补丁 dǎ bǔ ding

patch up, fix

刘强东打了补丁,把业绩好或者业绩不好但努力的人单独列了出来进行了区分 - Richard Liu further clarified that by “brothers” he was referring to those with good performance and those who work hard despite poor performance. [2]

3. 危机感 wēi jī gǎn

sense of crisis

京东危机感很浓厚,刘强东着急了,要击退竞争者 - There is a strong sense of crisis within JD: Richard Liu is anxious and wants to beat his competitors. [2]

4. 道德绑架 dào dé bǎng jià

moral hostage; guilt tripping

这就是道德绑架:你必须拼尽全力符合我的期待,才能得到我的认可 - This is guilt tripping: in order to be recognised, you have to give your all to meet my expectations. [3]

5. 有福同享,有难同当 yǒu fú tóng xiǎng, yǒu nàn tóng dāng

share in happiness and hardship

他所说的不是那种在公司混日子的人,有福同享有难同当才是真正的兄弟 - He’s not talking about those who slack off at work. He’s referring to those who share in happiness and hardship as being his true brothers. [1] 

Consuming the Conversation

The word which Richard Liu ate.

Useful words

6. 没准 méi zhǔn

maybe, perhaps

在东哥的一声声兄弟里,没准真有人犯了迷糊 - With Liu using this term “brothers” again and again, perhaps some people really do believe that anyone can be his brother.  [1]

7. 猛批 měng pī

heavily criticise

这次刘强东猛批一些高管和员工懈怠 - This time Richard Liu heavily criticized some executives and employees for their laziness. [1]

8. 吸血 xī xiě

suck blood, exploit

业绩不好还不拼博每天睡觉的人,本质上是在吸公司其他员工的血 - Those that don’t work hard despite their poor performance are essentially living off their colleagues. [2]

  • Note: The colloquial pronunciation of blood here: xiě and not xuè.

9. 枷锁 jiā suǒ

shackles, chains

我们是时候摆脱这些思想的枷锁了 - It's time for us to break free from these mental shackles. [3]

Three-character phrases

10. 巨无霸 jù wú bà

huge, gigantic

如今出来了好多家平台一起分食蛋糕,还个个都已经长成了巨无霸 - Nowadays, the market (or the pie) is shared by several platforms, each of which has grown into a big corporation. [2]

11. 混日子 hùn rì zi

to muddle through, to drift along

在任何一个有业绩或盈利追求的组织,躺平或混日子都是难被接受的 - In any organization that sets KPI or pursues profit, being idle or slacking off is unacceptable. [1]

12. 解释权 jiě shì quán

the right to interpret, the authority to explain

东哥保留对兄弟的最终解释权 - How the term "brother" is interpreted depends entirely on Brother Dong. [3]


13. 有意无意 yǒu yì wú yì

intentionally or unintentionally, with or without intention

他的解释被有意无意忽略了,外界把京东看成一家兄弟文化弥漫的公司 - His definition was intentionally or unintentionally ignored. So the outside world sees as a company where everyone is Liu’s brother.  [1]

14. 名存实亡 míng cún shí wáng

nominal, in name only, without substance

这种现象是非常嚣张的,也代表着内部管理已经名存实亡了 - This blatant violation of company rules is ubiquitous, which also means that the management system within the company is practically non-existent. [2]

15. 断章取义 duàn zhāng qǔ yì

to quote out of context, to take a quote out of its original meaning

所以只截一张图断章取义,刘强东会被笑话上热搜 - With just a screenshot taken out of context, Richard Liu became a laughing stock on the Weibo trending list. [2]

16. 无师自通 wú shī zì tōng

to learn or understand without a teacher, to be self-taught

像这样的逻辑,盛行于中国家庭内部,许多人可以说无师自通,早已习以为常 - Many Chinese families use the same set of logic, and many people are so use to it that they have internalised it themselves. [3]

17. 图穷匕见 tú qióng bǐ xiàn

when the situation becomes desperate, the true intention is revealed

除了企业文化使然,这种图穷匕见的说辞,大概也反映出京东正面临拼多多的强大竞争 - Apart from the corporate culture that fosters such tone, his desperate words probably also reflect that is facing strong competition from Pinduoduo. [3]

18. 言下之意 yán xià zhī yì

the implication, the underlying meaning

那言下之意无非是"企业要是经营失败,不能怪我,怪你们不够努力" - What he is trying to imply is simply that "if the company doesn't do well, it's not my fault. It's because you didn't work hard enough." [3]


19. 吃大锅饭 chī dà guō fàn

to have a system where resources are shared equally regardless of individual contribution

说自己永远不会开除兄弟,本质上就是吃大锅饭 - Saying that he will never fire any brothers is essentially creating a system where individual contribution doesn’t matter. [2] 

  • Note: A phrase which began life in early Communist China when much of the population lived in People's Communes (人民公社).

20. 一条死路 yì tiáo sǐ lù

a dead end, a path leading to destruction

大家一起吃大锅饭,这从一开始就是一条死路 - In a system where hard work will not be rewarded and laziness will not be punished, it is doomed to fail from the very beginning. [2] 

  • Note: Another way to say this phrase is to flip it around to 死路一条 which we have discussed before in this newsletter. 

21. 达摩克利斯之剑 dá mó kè lì sī zhī jiàn

the Sword of Damocles, a constant threat

“兄弟”不再是一个纽带、一份归属感,而成了实现企业利润目标的工具,一种达摩克利斯之剑般悬在头顶的威胁 - “Brothers” are no longer about connection and a sense of belonging. Instead, they have become a tool to generate profit for the business and this term is like the Sword of Damocles, a constant threat hanging over one's head. [3] 

  • Note: One of those Ancient Greek references which is more common in Chinese than English. Another common phrase is the Tacitus Trap (塔西佗陷阱), when a government is hated by its people no matter what it does. 

22. 亲兄弟明算账 qīn xiōng dì míng suàn zhàng

financial matters and responsibilities should be clearly accounted for, even among family members

所以整体来看刘强东做的很正常,没有问题,就算是亲兄弟还要明算账呢 - So what Liu did is just common practice. There's nothing wrong about it, since even real brothers need to have clear accounts. [2]

  • More: Literally translates as “real brothers” which is the phrase Liu used. Zoe explains more in the podcast about this phrase!

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