If you are active on the Chinese blogosphere, you definitely would have seen these two characters dominating the feed of WeChat, Weibo, and other social media sites: 躺平 (Lying flat). 

These two simple characters have become the headline of a social resistance movement in China, where youths are expressing their frustrations by doing only what is needed to get by. 

Toiling for a promotion? Nope. 

Saving for a car or house? Not a chance. 

Getting married? Why should I?

While some observers have criticised these “lying flat youth” for their lack of grit, others have retaliated against this apathy towards the struggles of today’s youth. Beyond this debate, we feel that there are bigger questions behind this movement of lying flat, and will be raising some of them here.

What is lying flat?

Most people trace the ‘lying flat’ movement to this viral post penned by a user who’s dubbed the ‘Kind-hearted Traveller’:

tangping china - lying flat is justice

In this post, the author reflects on how he manages to make ends meet despite working only one or two months per year by subsisting on a 200 Yuan (US$31) allowance. 

In doing so, he throws a wrench at the notions that support China’s current socio-economic order. Do we really need cars and houses and partners and fancy meals? If not, how much money do we actually need? More importantly, how hard do we actually need to work?

Lying flat: Untouched by the storm of involution

For a country with a 996 work culture, this message has hit especially hard on jaded Gen-Zs. In a recent survey of 241 000 participants, Weibo reported that 61 percent of its sample supported this idea.

This disenchantment towards this prevailing work culture is encapsulated by another buzzword that also recently entered the Chinese lexicon: 内卷 (involution).

tangping china - involution

Think of involution as an ugly prisoner’s dilemma of overwork. In a 996 culture, where bosses expect their employees to devote themselves to work, the more ambitious workers will work longer hours to stand out. Although they would prefer not to, the remaining workers will follow suit to avoid being seen as skiving.

With everyone working longer hours, these Type-A workers feel compelled to work even more– and the whole cycle repeats itself. The end result is a Sissyphian sketch of meaningless competition, where people work exhausting hours, not because they want to do more, but rather because they don’t want to lose out. 

The socioeconomic mechanics behind lying flat

But there’s still one piece of the picture missing.

Involution does explain why Chinese youths feel jaded by their working situation, but it still does not explain why they would feel compelled to jump on the overworking bandwagon. Behind this pressure lies a belief that they cannot afford to lose their jobs, which in turn reveal the socioeconomic considerations that drive this work culture.

Rising living expenses. Unemployment. Housing.

As China’s economic growth has plateaued, the current generation of youths has to wrestle with a few uncomfortable realities. Unlike their parents’ era, the jobs are fewer relative to the aspiring, wages have stagnated, and job uncertainty is higher.

tangping china - Shenzhen

The housing question, however, is easily the most pressing concern for this generation of young people, with housing prices ballooning in China, especially in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, where the prices are highest, a person would need to work– without eating or drinking– for 27 years before they can even afford a home.

This is the gritty reality that many Gen-Zs confront after slogging through the education system to finally secure a job. They are trapped in another rat race where they have to compete for the sake of competing. And even if they do survive, they are still no closer to reaching their personal goals.

In light of this bleak outlook, most people will feel tempted to lie flat. After all, it may feel less daunting to cope with what we have, as opposed to reaching out and falling, hard.

Why these socioeconomic concerns aren’t going away

Based on what we’ve gathered from the ground in China, lying flat has also contributed to a growing preference for ACG: Animation, Comics, and Gaming. At its core, however, lying flat represents a withdrawal from social obligations (work, family). 

For a country that’s working towards economic rejuvenation, China is clearly concerned. While the number of ‘lying flat’ people remains relatively small, the movement can still affect productivity and (if protracted) birth rates, which is why the state has been trying to quieten discussions about it online.

But we doubt that the harder questions behind this movement will go away, especially as China tries to squeeze out economic growth.

Consider the three-child policy, which China has quickly shifted towards to increase long-term output.

How youths have responded does evoke a sense of deja vu:

tangping china - three child policy

Again we see a familiar sense of exhaustion, frustration, and disillusionment (no wonder people are saying that 996 is a natural contraceptive). 

Ultimately, lying flat and a shrinking birth rate are two sides of the same coin. As such, while the Chinese state is trying to hush off any discussions about lying flat, the bigger questions of long working hours and high living expenses cannot be ignored.

In that regard, they have the experiences of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong to decide what to avoid. But finding out what would work is a much harder pursuit.  

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at hello@mworks.asia.