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China 2.0

Chinese Millennials Defend Their ''Lying-Flat'' Doctrine

With real estate prices high and job prospects low, a growing number of young Chinese say they choose to both work and spend less in order to escape the pressures of contemporary life.

At a café in Chongqing, China
At a café in Chongqing, China
Sze Ngai Lam

It's called the "lying flat" doctrine, increasingly popular among young people in China who choose to both work and spend less as ways to lighten the pressures of contemporary life. Recently, a professor from Tsing Hua University criticized this approach, and chastised the youth for letting down their parents and the country's "hard-working taxpayers."

BEIJING — On May 26, an internet user going by the name "Lying Flat Master" posted an article titled "Lying Flat is Justice" on the Chinese social media Baidu. This post of just over 200 words set off a heated discussion in the Chinese online world.

"For more than two years, I have not worked at all, but just played around all the time, and I felt there was nothing wrong with this," the internet user begins. "While the pressure mainly comes from people around you, who don't have any real life directions of their own, and follow the traditional mentality of the elders. Every time you look for news stories, they are more or less about fertility, relationships, having kids, etc. It is like an invisible creature posing a mindset on you, but we do not have to be like that."

In the post, the author also declares that Chinese society has never attached importance to the subjectivity of human beings, and doesn't allow people to control their own destiny rationally, powerfully and autonomously. Therefore, he advocates the philosophy of "lying flat," reducing materialistic desires, refusing to spend and compare and focusing instead on one's own life.

A state of having no desire for life, having nothing to do and refusing to move forward.

Even though the article was deleted by Baidu four days after its posting, Chinese internet users have been re-posting it with such fervor that it has drawn a response from official Chinese media. The Southern Dailyposted an article titled "Where is the sense of justice? Shameful to be lying flat." While the first half of the article implicitly acknowledges the unprecedented difficulties faced by young people in China, such as high housing prices and long work hours, it concludes that "lying-flatism" is a state of having no desire for life, having nothing to do and refusing to move forward.

The second half of the Southern Daily article emphasizes that there are still great opportunities in the mainland market, young people are still working hard to advance and that "lying flat" is definitely a "poisonous doctrine."

An associate professor from Tsinghua University wrote an article on May 28 criticizing youths who practice "lying-flatism" as "failing their parents' and "hundreds of millions of hard-working taxpayers." That article made it to the Weibo's top 10 searches, drawing overwhelming criticism from young people saying that "it is easy to criticize from the sidelines."

With the rapid economic development of mainland China over the past two decades, various social problems have arise that disproportionately affect young people. The working system of enterprises is mostly "99,6" i.e. working six days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Here's how one blogger put it: "Waking up at six o'clock to take the bus or subway, relying on coffee to refresh and dealing with the same old job, catfighting with colleagues over meaningless things, struggling to get a taxi after working overtime and only having to ride a bike home, not even taking off makeup and falling asleep."

On the one hand, young people want to break into large companies, such as Tencent, Meituan, NetEase and Pinduoduo, and to achieve upward social mobility; but on the other hand, they are extremely tired of this kind of life.

Coupled with a serious lack of labor protection, the average age of employees in large enterprises is around 30 years old, and many cite extreme pressure to work hardere and harder. At the beginning of this year, a 23-year-old employee, Fei Zhang, died suddenly on the road due to overwork, triggering criticisms that companies "use and discard" their young employees.

The "demotivational culture" is therefore popular. Many young Chinese adults are drawn to Vladislav Ivanov, a Russian model with a cold, lazy face and a "world-weary" vibe. One Tsing Hua University student used a university online platform to publish: "A brief introduction on how to mess around," teaching students how to be mediocre at work, develop "mess-around" software schemes, such as using Excel to read novels and to follow stocks via your browser status bar.

It's seen as a non-violent way to resist the system.

But "lying-flatism" also further incites youth to refuse to enter the labor market at all. Some in Hong Kong even describe the "lying-flat movement" as a non-violent, non-cooperation movement against capitalist exploitation: "We will all stop giving birth, and see who is left to be controlled (by the government)." But others point out that unless all wage earners work together, the "lying-flat" movement will fail when additional incentives are offered to encourage consumption and work.

Lying-flatism also brings out the controversy between the sexes, especially as influencers show off their wealth on Weibo, Tiktok and various platforms. "With car, with estate" is becoming the mainstream criteria for future husbands. "All those who were opposing lying-flatism are women, criticizing men as unmotivated and lazy," one man declares in an online forum. "Are these men in your debt?" Still, others refute the idea that there is a divide between the sexes in this generational battle.

One commentary sums up "lying-flatism" being "neither wanting to kneel, nor able to stand, so they have to lie down." It is seen as a non-violent way to resist the various demands imposed on people by society; to break free from the physical and mental constraints such as marriage and children, career promotion and buying a house by greatly reducing both your consumption and your life ambitions.

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