Chinese millennials are “scary” and Beijing is not happy
Five years ago, Luo Huazhong discovered that he liked to do nothing. He quit his job as a factory worker in China, cycled 1,300 miles from Sichuan Province to Tibet, and decided he could get by on odd jobs and $ 60 a month of his savings. He called his new lifestyle “lying flat”.
âI got cold feet,â Mr. Luo, 31, wrote in a blog post in April, describing his lifestyle. “I don’t think there is anything wrong.”
He titled his message “Putting it down is justice” attaching a photo of him lying on his bed in a dark room with the curtains drawn. In no time, the post was celebrated by Chinese millennials as an anti-consumer manifesto. âLying flatâ went viral and has since become a larger statement on Chinese society.
A generation ago, the road to success in China was to work hard, get married, and have children. The country’s authoritarianism was seen as a fair compromise as millions of people were lifted out of poverty. But with employees working longer hours and house prices rising faster than incomes, many young Chinese fear they are the first generation not to do better than their parents.
They are now defying the long-held narrative of the country’s prosperity by refusing to participate.
Mr. Luo’s blog post was deleted by censors, who saw it as an affront to Beijing’s economic ambitions. Mentions of “lying flat” – tanging, as it is called in Mandarin – are heavily restricted on the Chinese Internet. An official counter-narrative has also emerged, encouraging young people to work hard for the future of the country.
âAfter working for so long, I just felt numb, like a machine,â Mr. Luo said in an interview. “And so I quit.”
Staying flat means giving up marriage, having no children, remaining unemployed, and avoiding material needs like a house or a car. This is the opposite of what the Chinese leaders have asked their people. But that didn’t bother Leon Ding.
Mr. Ding, 22, has been lying flat for nearly three months and considers the act to be “silent resistance.” He dropped out of college in his final year in March because he didn’t like the computer science major his parents chose for him.
After leaving school, Mr. Ding used his savings to rent a room in Shenzhen. He tried to find a regular office job, but found that most positions required him to work long hours. âI want a stable job that gives me time to relax, but where can I find it? he said.
Mr. Ding believes young people should work hard for what they love, but not “996” – 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week – as many employers in China expect. Frustrated with the job search, he decided that “staying flat” was the way to go.
âTo be honest, you feel really comfortable,â he said. âI don’t want to be too hard on myself.
To make ends meet, Mr. Ding gets paid to play video games and has kept his expenses down by doing things like cutting his favorite bubble tea. Asked about his long-term plans, he replied, âCome back and ask me in six months. I only plan six months.
While many Chinese millennials continue to adhere to the country’s traditional work ethic, âstaying flatâ reflects both an emerging counterculture movement and a backlash against China’s hypercompetitive work environment.
Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford who focuses on Chinese society, called tangping culture a turning point for China. âYoung people feel a kind of pressure that they cannot explain and they feel that promises have been broken,â he said. “People are realizing that material improvement is no longer the most important source of meaning in life.”
The ruling Communist Party, wary of any form of social instability, has targeted the idea of ââ”lying flat” as a threat to stability in China. Censors suppressed a tangping group with more than 9,000 members on Douban, a popular Internet forum. Authorities also banned posting to another discussion forum with over 200,000 members.
In May, China’s internet regulator ordered online platforms to “strictly restrict” new messages on tanging, according to a directive obtained by the New York Times. A second directive required e-commerce platforms to stop selling clothing, phone cases and other goods bearing the âtangpingâ mark.
State media called the tanging “shameful” and one newspaper warned of “lying flat before you get rich”. Yu Minhong, a prominent billionaire, urged young people not to lie down because âif not, who can we count on for the future of our country?
Mr Luo decided to write about the tanging after seeing people vehemently discussing China’s latest census results in April and calling on the country to face a looming population crisis by having more babies.
He described his original “flat” blog post as “an inner monologue of a man living at the bottom of society”.
âThose people who say lying down is shameful are shameless,â he said. âI have the right to choose a slow lifestyle. I haven’t done anything destructive to society. Do we have to work 12 hours a day in a sweatshop, and is that fair? “
Mr. Luo was born in rural Jiande County, eastern Zhejiang Province. In 2007, he left a vocational high school and began to work in factories. One job consisted of working 12 hour shifts in a tire factory. At the end of the day, he had blisters all over his feet, he said.
In 2014, he found a job as a product inspector in a factory but didn’t like it. He quit after two years and took a casual acting job to make ends meet. (In 2018, he played a corpse in a Chinese movie, of course lying flat.)
Today he lives with his family and spends his days reading philosophy and news and training. He said it was an ideal way of life, allowing him to live in a minimal way and “think and speak freely”. He encourages his disciples, who call him âthe Sleeping Master,â to do the same.
After hearing about Mr. Luo’s post on a Chinese podcast, Zhang Xinmin, 36, wanted to write a song about it.
Mr. Zhang, a Wuhan-based musician, had quit his job in advertising five years ago to devote himself to his music, and the idea of ââstaying flat resonated with him. He called his song “Tangping Is the Right Way”.
Mr. Zhang uploaded the song to his social media platforms on June 3, and in one day, censors removed it from three websites. He was furious.
âToday only running forward is allowed, but not lying down,â he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me that they deleted that song.”
He finally uploaded the song as a video to YouTube, which is blocked in China. The video shows him lying on his sofa, casually strumming his guitar as he sings in a cheerful voice:
Laying down is really good
Lying down is wonderful
Lying down is the right thing to do
Lie down so you don’t fall anymore
Lying down means never falling.