Work hard, play hard
But I did my PhD at the University of Groningen, and while it is a top 100 university, the pressure is obviously going to be less than at an elite university. Fortunately, I got a job at Oxford, one of the best academic institutes in the world, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. And indeed, I do spend a lot more time on research now than I used to. But I don't teach anymore, so my work week is actually no different than during my PhD. I barely work more than 40 hours a week, and I don't often have to do research in the weekend. I'm juggling more projects, and as a post-doc I'm more efficient and effective in the way I spend my time, but all in all, I can easily manage a work-life balance.
Work hard, no play
Of course, such a radical change requires a radical investment. Part of the foundation for its success is that Tsinghua has embraced the tenure track system, where you are basically on probation for the first six years, after which you either get a permanent position or let go. The basis for determining whether you get tenure is your publication record, which means to get a job you have to work very hard for six years straight. I've heard stories of how big the pressure can be for tenure at US institutes, but apparently at universities in China like Tsinghua it's not uncommon to work days, nights, weekends, and everything in between, in order to get into the top journals and guarantee tenure.
An additional benefit is financial compensation. Chinese universities pay bonuses for published articles. This can apparently go up to $165,000 for a single article if it's published in a journal like Nature. While plenty of research has shown that financial stimuli don't necessary lead to quality work, it does provide an environment in which it is attractive for great scholars to stick around. In Western society you can always go into industry, where you can make a lot more money than in academia. But if the pay is good, that's one fewer reason to switch.
The result may be comparable to what we see in modern day football (the non-American kind). At the start of a season you can predict the sixteen clubs that will compete in the round of sixteen of the UEFA Champions Leauge, because they are nearly always the same. The leagues in countries like England, Spain and France have been ruined by the billions that oligarchs have brought with them. Talented players are acquired by clubs before they are out of puberty, and the murderous competition can ruin them. Their countries of origin don't benefit, they don't benefit, and the sport does not benefit.
We should take care that in order to remain competitive, we don't move to a system where young academics have publish papers before they can even start a PhD, and then have to spend all their time researching and writing. Quality research is not the result of stress and pressure; scholars should have some freedom to pursue their own interests at their own pace. Many groundbreaking discoveries were made accidentally. That's not to say there shouldn't be competition, in academia as in industry competition helps create excellence, but the focus should remain on doing good research. And if universities like Groningen cannot compete financially, maybe we should focus on making it an attractive environment to work in, in other respects: like getting rid of that bloody publish or perish drive for academic success.