By Sijia Jiang and Pei Li
HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese tech giants are in the hunt for young, energetic staff to take the place, in some cases, of veteran managers.
The companies deny that the moves, which are worrying some older employees, reflect any discrimination based on age. Explicit age discrimination is illegal in many countries, though not in China.
Chinese tech companies are known to prefer young workers, in part because of demands such as the so-called "996" schedule that asks employees to work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
On Thursday, Tencent Holdings confirmed plans to reshuffle 10 percent of its managers.
"Let some older members of management retire from their positions," Tencent Holdings President Martin Lau said. "Their jobs will be taken up by younger people, new colleagues who may be more passionate."
Asked to elaborate on the reshuffle, Tencent cited its annual report as stating its employment practice complies with laws and regulations and "does not discriminate on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, race, disability, age, religious belief, sexual orientation or family status".
Analysts said the move to promote younger managers is driven in part by the rise of a new generation of Chinese internet companies such as Pinduoduo and Bytedance, which are mostly run by entrepreneurs and engineers born in the 1980s or 1990s.
"The environment and external pressures are pushing these companies to reform, if the leadership is too old, it's easy for them to fall behind," said Li Chengdong, a Beijing-based tech analyst who used to work at Tencent and e-commerce giant JD.com Inc.
"In the U.S. and Europe you rarely see companies going through structural reform every other year, but it's quite common in China... core leadership can be replaced within a very short amount of time."
At Baidu, CEO Robin Li said in an internal letter - which the company made public - that it plans to accelerate efforts to become more youthful this year by promoting more workers born after 1980, and also announced an executive retirement plan.
The first executive to leave under that plan is its president for new business, Zhang Yaqin, who will retire in October, Li said. Local media reported Zhang's age as 53.
"For senior managers which have worked hard for the company and accompanied its growth, if they want to choose a new life because of personal or family reasons, we will take care of them under the executive retirement plan," Li wrote.
A Baidu spokesman said that age is not a factor in whether managers chose to retire or not and that it was up to them if they wanted to join the plan.
Lei Jun, chief of Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi, said at a news conference on March 20 that the company was appointing new, younger general department managers as part of an organisational restructuring.
A Xiaomi spokesman said the company was not cutting the senior management team but that it needed to promote "younger talents" to support its rapid expansion.
Chinese tech workers in their 30s and 40s told Reuters they had come to accept the industry's preference for youth but worried that it was becoming more extreme, especially in up-and-coming fields such as artificial intelligence.
"I'm not worrying so much about losing my job, but certainly there is worry that I will not get promoted," said a 38-year-old engineer at JD.com. Like other employees interviewed for this story, he declined to be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
A JD.com spokeswoman said it did not discriminate and that any high-performing employee is eligible for promotion.
LONGER TIME TO PROGRESS
A 29-year-old female programmer for one of China's top short video platforms said ageism was of greater concern to women.
"It can take a longer time for women to progress to the better jobs, so the age restriction more heavily affects women," she said. "There is definitely the feeling that if you are older, you won't understand the product."
Older workers have few legal options.
"The only recourse Chinese workers have is if they're not properly compensated once they're laid off," said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labour rights group.
While age discrimination is illegal in the United States, it is often hard to prove. Bias in favour of younger workers often shows itself openly in the Silicon Valley start-up scene, where investors often prefer to back entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s.
In China, some in the tech industry said older employees could still get ahead if they were top performers. At telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, known for an aggressive internal culture where everyone's contract is up for renewal every few years, one employee defended the approach as common in the industry. Huawei declined to comment.
"Companies are moving away from the traditional iron rice bowl type of mentality," he said.
(Additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and Josh Horwitz in SHANGHAI; Writing by Brenda Goh; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Richard Borsuk)