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 Daily posted 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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Society

Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.


Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."

*Pseudonym


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