Not only is China’s birth rate declining rapidly, but young people are now choosing to “live lying down.” They work only the bare minimum to protest the absence of options for building an attractive and affordable life within a society determined by the Chinese regime and big business contractors. This defiant movement raises a big question mark over the future of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

If these two trends in China become more pronounced, the world could soon be witnessing an unusual phenomenon in which, in addition to a shrinking population, the generation called upon to ensure the future of the ruling system is resisting and refusing to follow the standardized parameters, thus worsening the situation. 

But, what is the “lying flat” movement, which is so appealing to millennials and young people of the “Z” generation? 

An inequitable system

Those young people who are just over 20 years old have grasped the inequity of a system that squeezes them throughout their childhood and adolescence to obtain the highest academic grades, which will qualify them to face an all-out battle in the dreaded “gaokao” exams. 

These national tests summon 11 million aspirants to a university quota that could open the option to a life of supposed success. However, it should be noted that this struggle involves sacrifices made by the whole family for decades, who strive for their offspring to achieve the best.

Upon completing the final university stage, the winners seek jobs in large companies like Alibaba, Tencent, and other giant economic conglomerates. Still, not all of them get their desired position.

The lucky ones who make it have to comply with the marathon working day that has come to be known as the 9-9-6. It involves a schedule from nine in the morning until nine at night for six days a week, which implies a workload of 72 hours a week, which, in even more extreme cases, can reach 126 hours. 

As if that were not enough, apart from the long hours in the office, e-mails and instant messaging mean that employers can always be in touch, projecting their image beyond the workplace.

While employees could retire to rest and care for their families at 6 p.m., the competition against their office colleagues and giant corporate competitors is such that both bosses and employees begin to increase working hours one by one until 9 p.m. Otherwise, anyone who does not do so could be driven out of the system by the results of those who do stay on during that grueling workday. 

Frustration and protest

This forced ‘work culture’ has become so embedded in Chinese society that one of the slogans often used in companies is: “Don’t eat, don’t sleep, don’t go home—so stay in the office—you have to pledge, you have to swear, that we will crush the competitors.”

Author and speaker Pascal Coopers captured the slogan in China from a banner at a store of Alibaba’s Chinese competitor JD.com during a 2019 shopping festival. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma himself, the founder of Alibaba, has praised and pushed the 9-9-6 day.

In this context, for the new generation of Chinese, the outlook for life is not flattering, even more so when they analyze that the options for self-improvement by trying to become independent of this form of work are practically nil. 

The twenty-somethings consider that in the society regulated by the Chinese regime they will no longer find the possibilities of improving their lives as their parents did, and opt for the tendency to “live lying down,” or “Tang ping,” in Mandarin Chinese.

In practice, this movement spreads like wildfire among their generation and leads them to “do nothing,” choosing to live simply, cheaply, and stress-free. In this regard, Lin, a 24-year-old human resources worker, expressed Tang ping as the alternative way of life left for them because “young people can’t become ‘winners in life’ who buy cars, apartments, get married and have children.'”

Wang, a 24-year-old lab technician, said that “lying flat” was fine with him because, “Sending resumes was like fishing for a needle in the ocean,” adding, “You’re beaten up by society and just want a more relaxed life … ‘lying flat’ is not waiting to die. I still work, but just don’t overstretch.'”

An internet user identified as “A Kind Traveler” was the one who marked the starting point of the movement with an article published on the internet. In his life project, he tries to keep his monthly expenses to the equivalent of $31. 

He obtains his money by working only one or two months a year, he has the rest of the time for himself, and the money is even enough to travel, spending the minimum as a faithful example of this nascent Chinese lifestyle. 

Another follower of the “lying flat” movement, aged 35, said: “So now that I’ve figured out life, I’ll just be a carefree young man who doesn’t fight, shout or complain; I won’t get married, have children or buy an apartment. I will just lie quietly.”

Meanwhile, college entrepreneur Sun Ke, who after graduating in 2017, struggled the “old style” trying to establish a restaurant in Shanghai and after losing $155,000 of his family’s wealth, shared the experience:

“To compete with others with delivery service apps, my partner and I had to take money out of our own pockets, waive the delivery fee and give customers discounts. And the ones who are still making money are those big franchises,” a frustrated Sun said

For Sun, his failure is a typical manifestation of “ninjuan,” a Chinese term that means to curl up and has been extended with the meaning of “involution,” and also as exhaustion, disappointment, and discouragement, interpreted in the social sense that the increase in population does not result in higher productivity or innovation improvements. It also designates those who give up, those who withdraw into themselves.

Another example is Emma Rao, who spent three years struggling with the 9-9-6 workday after moving from Nanjing to work in a Shanghai financial center. She only had time left to eat, shower, and go to bed, so she summed up her work experience by saying, “I was almost depressed. I was deprived of all my personal life.”

Rao often surfed the internet, read the news, and watched online videos until well after midnight, entering into another disorder known as ‘Revenge Bedtime Procrastination,’ which also impacts those who have already disrupted their lives with the 9-9-6 workday.

Likewise, a worker in Guangdong province shared the impact of his work life by expressing that he felt he “belonged to someone else” and could only “find himself” when he came home and retreated to his bed at bedtime.

“Involution” in this sense is a denunciation of young people who are pushed to the extreme in their efforts to respond efficiently to the requirements and pressures of an increasingly demanding business group linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Professor Biao Xiang of Oxford University says: “The young continue to feel if they don’t work hard or participate in competitions they will be ousted by society, but they don’t see a breakthrough for themselves despite their repeated efforts.” 

College students who look at the broader social context infer that it has only given them a narrow outlook for their future lives, feel frustrated, and look resentfully at the billionaires who might once have encouraged them to follow their path.

The tone of the comments still found on social networks gives a sense of this accumulated displeasure, as evidenced by the note posted by one of the netizens, who expressed, “If bosses could relate to people who work for them, 996 won’t exist, neither will involution.” Others of them said, “Capitalists should just shut up.”

In a sense, the social environment in China is generating another nucleus of social protest; in this case, it is precisely the university students who constitute the ferment, similar to what happened with the student movement that ended tragically in Tiananmen Square in 1986. 

It is estimated that on that sad night between June 3 and 4, around 10,000 students demanding political freedoms and democracy were massacred—crushed by the army controlled by the CCP, whose leaders gave the order to do so—refusing to listen to the demonstrators’ requests.

According to Dr. Fang Xu, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the “lying down” movement will persist. She stated: “Sadly, I would say the next five to ten years will still be like this because there’s no big technological evolutions industrial-wise, so there’s no new fields for them to explore and grow.”

Chinese regime reacts

“Relaxing” in this way by more and more young people in China becomes a low blow to the plans for global expansionism to which the top CCP leadership has been committed for decades, openly challenging many developed countries it considers its rivals in the geopolitical arena. 

In fact, this attitude of young people to life goes entirely against the standards of maximum effort that have characterized previous generations, pressured by the need to survive and support their families.

On the other hand, it adds to the attitude of rejection that millions of Chinese have expressed towards the different CCP-affiliated groups, as reported by independent international media specializing in the news about China, Minghui.org, who posed the question: “Right now, nearly 380 million Chinese people have seen through the CCP and chosen to quit the Communist Party, the Communist Youth League, and the Young Pioneers. As many more young people chose to lie flat and not cooperate with the CCP, what does this mean?.”

In this context, CCP leader Xi Jinping has upheld the slogan of “roll up your sleeves and work hard.” In a 2018 speech, Xi reinforced the message by saying that the future “belongs to those who work hard” and that “happiness can only be achieved through great endeavours.”

Likewise, Tsinghua University professor Li Fengliang, a leading interpreter of the system established by the CCP, expressed that the “laid-back” movement represents to him “an extremely irresponsible attitude that not only disappoints one’s parents but also hundreds and millions of taxpayers.” 

For their part, the media have also expressed themselves along these lines, describing the “lying flat” movement as “unfair and shameful” or highlighting the damage it causes to the economy and society in general. Predictably, if young people do not produce and spend, economic growth will be seriously affected.

The same official news agency, Xinhua, promoted the CCP’s version of a citizen-in-waiting by posting a video of a scientist’s 12-hour workday, accompanied by a hashtag, now removed, saying, “the 86-year-old scientist who refuses to lie flat.”

A ticking time bomb?

An analysis by a Political Science Research Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, points to several aspects of youth behavior that worry the CCP. He said in an interview given on Jan. 20 that “It could imply an unsuspected social effect very different from the one that was crushed in Tiananmen Square, but perhaps even more shocking.” 

Asked whether the CCP is afraid of the youth, Cabestan replied, “Not only hairstyles or short skirts… The authorities are now on a frantic hunt for tattoos! showing they feel that youth are escaping them, especially urban youth.” Adding, “Young people have grown up in a China where consumerism was dominant. Their present world revolves around the internet, online entertainment, and money that has become immaterial.” 

He went on to say, “Look at ten young people having dinner together. All spend their time hunched over their mobile phones. Their exchanges are rudimentary. This form of individualistic withdrawal obviously worries the authorities, who find that young people are only interested in games and dating sites. But what scares the regime most is that they have access to information that is not always official.”

Cabestan’s comments about “lying down” or Tang ping, which is one of the phenomena that most worries CCP leaders: “It is the rampant individualism, which is very marked among them. Generally speaking, there is little civic spirit in China. You could say that the stock market sets the hierarchy of values.”

He adds, “This generates a youth that often seems cynical. And it also generates attitudes that are not to the party’s liking. For example, the followers of Tang ping, those who take their foot off the gas and reject hard work.”

Cabestan referred to the measures taken by the CCP in favor of youth, mainly that “It has increased the number of orders.” These include bans, particularly on video games for those under 18 years of age, who circumvent them by using VPNs or their parents’ accounts. 

On the other hand, the “living lying down” of young people is presented as a new manifestation of a broader phenomenon that had already been brewing since, and in the past, and that affects other spheres of the Chinese population, and in particular bureaucrats. 

This could be inferred from the protests and grievances of CCP Premier Li Keqiang, who has expressed frustration at the negligence of his bureaucracy in recent years, according to the Chinese-language media Da Ji Yuan.

In this case, the attitude of officials reveals: “passivity or lack of initiative. They decide to do nothing to avoid conflicts and responsibilities.” Addressing this in 2014, Li expressed: “It is necessary to take action against mediocre cadres,” adding: “Being in a position not to act, take the salary not to act, mediocrity and laziness, is also a kind of corruption!.”

Now, seven years later, the situation has not improved. According to a report in China’s “Anhui Daily” in February, CCP municipal committee secretary Ling Yun criticized some officials for their confusion, waiting for arrangements, transfer, and retirement.

These demonstrations of Tang ping would be a sign of the corruption that permeates the work culture under CCP regulations. Corruption, in turn, has become one of its constant problems for many years and has worsened over time.

It is to be considered that, in parallel, some officials believe that there are no opportunities and no future in their career, in addition to being accused of not wanting to assume the responsibilities that come with their positions. 

Looking back at the CCP’s past, it can be seen that this party was created and nurtured based on the terror that its precursors imparted since 1920. During the period between 1950 and 1952, they succeeded in: “destroying the landowners and officials in the countryside, then replacing them with CCP people, robbing people who have been killed, taking large amounts of public property, and sowing fear of the CCP, an obsession that will never fade away in the hearts of the Chinese people,” author Emma Watson noted in October.

She added: “Later, the Chinese Communist Party used this fear and obsession of the people to deter and suppress them,” so it is not surprising that the millennia-old culture that allowed the great Chinese nation to prosper and become a benchmark of human civilization during the millennia before the emergence of the CCP has almost completely disintegrated.

The resulting scenario presents a demoralized and apathetic society on the one hand and a ruling elite on the other, suffering from the same symptoms and struggling to maintain and continue a painful social experiment that precariously binds more than 1.4 billion people.

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