They have refused to dance to the tunes of their leaders.

In recent times, Chinese millennials’ “lying flat” philosophy has taken cyberspace by storm. The storm was triggered by a post titled “Lying flat is justice” on Chinese search engine Baidu, in April 2021. The user named “Kind-Hearted Traveller”, identified as Luo Huazhong, wrote, “I have not been working for two years, just having fun and don’t see anything wrong in it. Pressure mainly comes from people around you who position and compete with you, it also comes from the values of the older generation. All sorts of pressures keep popping up before you all the time. Every time you search for a popular news, it is all about romances and pregnancies etc. of celebrities in “procreative surrounding” (生育周边), as if some ‘invisible creatures’ (看不见的生物) are creating a kind of thinking and pressure on you. But we don’t have to be like this. I can just sleep in the sun in my wooden bucket like Diogenes, or I can live in a cave like Heraclitus and think about ‘logos’, since this land has never had a school of thought that exalts human subjectivity, I can develop one of my own. Lying flat is my wise movement. Only through lying flat, can humans measure up to things.”

The post attracted millions of responses and Luo was pronounced as the “lying flat master” and his philosophy as “lying flat-ism” (躺平主义) by netizens. The storm of “lying flat-ism” and the mass it is gathering have taken the government by surprise, and the post was soon taken off Chinese cyberspace. The South China Morning Post has defined “lying flat-ism” as “to represent a silent protest to unfairness, often the result of structural and institutional factors that can no longer be altered by personal efforts”. It is an antithesis to “ants in the pants” (热锅上的蚂蚁) phenomenon of the socialist construction and reform period that culminated into a hustle culture of “996” or working from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week. It is the reaction to “involution” (内卷) in Chinese society as reflected in Luo Huazhong’s post. As a response to this, Chinese millennials have refused to become money making machines for the ruling class and are resorting to not getting married, not having children, not having a job, not owning property, consuming as little as possible, and not communicating to the outside world. In other words, it is a kind of Gandhian passive resistance or non-cooperation movement that is non-violent. An article on Sohu.com has pronounced it as a “new cultural movement of the new youth in a hundred years.” So, what has triggered “lying flat-ism” in the new era?

One, Chinese millennials are finding upward social mobility extremely difficult, unlike the older generation of the reform era, when China witnessed unprecedented economic growth by attracting foreign investment and capital. China’s biggest disruptive brands such as Huawei, ZTE, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu etc., are the byproducts of that economic boom. The export growth which China witnessed in the last two decades is the thing of a bygone era. Though President Xi Jinping has stated that China will rely mainly on “internal circulation” i.e. the domestic cycle of production, distribution, and consumption for its development, but unemployment has reached unprecedented levels in recent years. The unemployment rate for those aged 16 to 24 was 13.1% as of February 2021, far above the national urban jobless rate of 5.5%, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. According to the 2021 census, 218.36 million people in China are university graduates, a 73% increase from 2010. Imagine the pressure on government and young people when between 8 to 9 million students enter the workforce every year.

Two, it reveals a serious demographic crisis in China. Once in a decade census (2020) conducted by China reveals that China’s population rose 5.38% between 2010 and 2020 to reach 1.41 billion, slowest since census began in 1953. Data revealed a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman for 2020, which is at par with many developed societies. Demographic deterioration has forced China to replace its 2016 two-child policy with a new three-child policy in 2021. But will it help if the former didn’t bear any fruit? An editorial in the Chinese edition of the Global Times seems to suggest that China can do it. It says, “We should have confidence that China is a country with strong macro-control capabilities, and we will certainly be able to do more effectively than Western countries in adjusting the population structure.” Remember Mao once said that “the failure to solve the food problem was entirely the result of the cruel and ruthless oppression and exploitation of imperialism, feudalism, bureaucratic capitalism, and the Kuomintang reactionary government, rather than overpopulation.” China knows that the loss of the demographic dividend will have a huge impact on the overall outlook of economy, but the Chinese millennials, unlike their counterparts of the construction and reform periods, have refused to dance on the tunes of their leaders, rather have found refuge in “lying flat-ism” and have resisted to be leeks that are harvested by the ruling class (割韭菜) at will.

Three, it is also a struggle against the increasing social inequalities. Though state capitalism has made tremendous achievements in the last four decades, millions of people have been alleviated from abject poverty, however, the widening social inequalities arising out of the nexus between political and economic powers within the party state has become a new Achilles’ heel for the Party. Statistics reveal that the top 0.14% of households in China own around one-third of China’s wealth. Last year, Premier Li Keqiang contradicted President Xi Jinping on the poverty alleviation issue when he said during a press briefing that “China has over 600 million people whose monthly income is barely 1,000 yuan ($140) and their lives have further been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.” On 11 March 2021, during a press briefing Li Keqiang dropped yet another bombshell by declaring that there are over 200 million Chinese people doing “flexijobs” (灵活就业), implying that these many people are doing more than one or two jobs at a time in order to secure their livelihood. Premier Li Keqiang advocated that these people should be brought under the social security net and offered state subsidies.

In a nutshell, China’s ageing population, weak domestic demand, and shrinking exports, and “lying flat-ism” may exacerbate China’s economic and social issues. No wonder the official media has criticised the “lying flat” philosophy. Xinhua, in a commentary entitled “‘Lying flat’ is shameful, where is the sense of justice?” published on 20 May 2021 said, “choosing to ‘lie flat’ in the face of pressure is not only unjust, but also shameful. Such a “poisonous chicken soup” has no value. On 28 May, Chinese edition of the Global Times in its editorial wrote, “China is at the most crucial stage of the long road to national rejuvenation. Young people are the hope of this country. Neither their personal circumstances nor the circumstances of this country will allow them to ‘lie flat’ collectively. No matter whether they are active or passive, they will become the most diligent and spiritually strongest group in the world.” Sohu.com even tried to convince the Chinese millennials as to how “lying flat-ism” or “demotivation culture” (丧文化) has been destroying the young Japanese for the last 30 years. The article says that “the proportion of the singles in Japanese population has reached as high as 30%. Among them, the proportion of men who have never married before the age of 50 is 23%, and the proportion of women is 14%. It is predicted that by 2035, half of Japanese people will be singles.” Quoting a survey conducted by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, Japan, the article says that “the male and female ‘virginity rate’ for 18-34 years old in Japan stood at 42% and 44.2% respectively, and the rate is still on the rise.” Some academicians from reputed universities have also defended the official condemnation of “lying flat” people. In the words of Professor Li Fengliang from Tsinghua University, “involution plays the role of screening function in education.” Obviously, it didn’t go well with the “lying flat” community, who retorted back by saying that that “Tsinghua professors should be subjected to a termination system, so that they know what involution means.”

Notwithstanding the criticism and pitfalls of “lying flat-ism”, Chinese millennials are of the view that no matter how hard they work under the present 996 system, how hard they try to save money, buy a house or car with a loan, get married and have children, they cannot satisfy people or make themselves happy. The question they are asking is: is there a better resistance than “lying flat”?

B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.