Tang ping: how China’s youth are refusing to work
The 'lying flat' movement is a sign of increasing dissatisfaction with President Xi
As President Xi Jinping heads into the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in a month’s time, he is all but guaranteed to win an unprecedented third term as Party leader. Nonetheless there are headwinds: an economic slowdown, a housing crisis, and the uncompromising zero-Covid policy that is still blocking a recovery. But one less explored challenge for the unelected leader is the country’s youth, which is having something of an existential crisis.
Over 200 million people across China are still in some form of lockdown; businesses are in decline, and lives are being ruined. Jinping is showing no sign of changing course, and unsurprisingly, anger is growing, not least because the draconian solutions aren’t working.
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Frustration among the educated urban youth is especially palpable. China’s National Bureau of Statistics puts youth unemployment rate at 20% while eleven million graduates from China’s universities have seen their earning power shrink over the last two years. Younger generations are losing interest in a university education because it no longer provides a guarantee of a decent job and better wages.
One response has been to try to escape the country. Immediately after the three-month Shanghai lockdown ended, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees spoke of a potentially “great exodus” from China as around 600,000 applied to emigrate. The fact that this desire to leave has not been realised, given China’s strict monitoring and restrictions on travel, has only increased despondency. So young people are turning to a different form of protest.
The Tang ping (lying flat) movement started, as most protests do in China, on social media. In a post by Luo Huazhong (an ex-factory worker who quit his job to cycle around China picking up casual labour and finding fulfilment in an itinerant lifestyle) he revelled in his disengagement from the rat-race. He refused be exploited. His original manifesto began: “Lying down is my wise movement. Only by lying down can humans become the measure of all things.”
Tang ping is just one example of the growing countercultural dissatisfaction with the failure of the Party to deliver. It is a passive resistance to the aims of national recovery, but more significantly, the autonomous non-cooperation exemplified in tang ping is a direct challenge to the central authority of the state. After all, the Party requires social compliance for its existence. The state news agency, Xinhua, says that “choosing to ‘lie flat’ in the face of pressure is not only unjust, but also shameful.”
Refusal to engage in the “great rejuvenation of China’s civilisation” poses a major challenge to Xi Jinping’s essential drive for development. It needs people to consume in order to reinvigorate the economy after Covid. He needs to look strong on the world’s stage. He can do without an army of conscientious objectors.
Can Xi Jinping convince the nation’s youth to participate in the next phase of the Chinese experiment, or will he need to force them? This dilemma is the last thing that Xi Jinping needs as he begins his next — and probably his final — five-year term.
Meanwhile here academics, medics, public officials, and some politicians, who agitated for “Zero Covid” continue in their secure, well paid jobs despite having been proven so comprehensively wrong about a draconian policy which was not only ineffective, but ruinously damaging.
Those boggers should be on trial. Instead, the chiefs among them got knighthoods….
It sounds rather like the old workplace bogus (but wise) saying: –
“Unless morale improves, the whippings will continue!”
In the US it’s called “quiet quitting”, but it’s not being done as a form of political protest. Quiet quitters are Zoomers who don’t want to grow up.
Actually when you look into it, it’s more like “work to rule”. Better known as doing what is in your contract. My contract pays me for a set amount of hours per week, if I work anymore than that without compensation, my employer is getting my labour for free. Sorry, but I have better things to do with my evenings and weekends than working for free.
If you want people to go above and beyond, give them something to aim for rather than moaning at them and threatening them with the sack.
I can’t put my finger but the the younger generations across the developed nations especially but also I see it for example in Indian youth, late teens early twenties especially but all the way to early thirties, are behaving in ways in which I cannot understand. It’s not rebellion or revolution – I could understand those as standard youthful reactions, it’s almost the opposite but it doesn’t feel like standard youthful sloth, it’s more like listlessness or becalmment . It’s some form of alienation, accide even, difficult to understand why or where it’s stemming from. I think we better start paying some attention to this, because it almost feels like a trauma reaction.
To my mind, it’s pretty straight forward – a broken contract. When people are young, they are generally promised certain outcomes if they follow the requirements set out for them – to study or work hard, to sacrifice their time to an abstract ideal, to commit to doing something now that is arduous but which will pay off later. The problem comes with what is promised as the payoff? If the specifics aren’t fulfilled, are ill defined or change without explanation or recompense, why wouldn’t anyone question their side of the bargain and choose to withdraw their part of the deal? I’d say young people are being promised more and more of the earth at a point when less and less of it is ever likely to be available to them. In many cases that promise is made with foreknowledge of that fact but even where it’s not, the failure to come good on the contract is a life shattering bomb in a young person’s life when they become aware of it. This, I think, it what you’re witnessing.
I understand it. The entire globe is sick and exhausted. And yet prior generations keep wanting MOAR and MOAR despite it being a suicide mission. Everyone except the most dense (you) can feel it.
Ultimately, many are realising the sheer pointlessness of their situation. Millennials joined the working world during the time of the credit crunch, and across western nations have endured nothing but stagnant wages while watching house prices climb ever further out of reach and facing rental costs taking up an ever higher proportion of what little money they have.
Why are they going to bust a gut when they know it will make no difference to their situation, a home of their own will never be within their grasp so they’re just giving up, and I can’t say I blame them
It looks to me like a death of hope. Actually quite concerning. When the next generation won’t engage with its predecessors, not even to fight them, we have a problem.
As a still relatively young person, it’s all pretty straightforward. The fruits of taking part in society are not what they were even twenty years ago, so why bother going beyond the bare minimum needed to survive. We are unlikely to ever be able to buy our own home, have a spouse and children or even live in a secure and well maintained society. So why bother? The watch word is apathy and an almost Evolan disdain for the day to day of living in the modern world.
The internet, social media, the online world – I think that’s the prime cause of this anomie, detachment from people and the physical world. It seems to be resulting in a sort of stunting of personality and of the ability to deal with physical people and the rough and tumble of the real world.
ooooh….tough talk from Allison. Wait until those zoomers bury you.
We seem to have bred a generation or two to whom independence, the desire to have absolute freedom, within ones resources, to do as one wishes, has faded. How about a sex life? This partly is because it seems most young people expect to have such a high standard of living, to go out on the town when they choose, to eat out routinely, to have foreign holidays, I could go on. Why they feel they should be able to do all of that and yet still live independently is baffling but is probably driven by the fantasy that is social media. Most people of my generation couldn’t wait to leave home, to strike out on my own and crfeate my own life. It was a huge struggle but that was the price one accepted to pay for freedom. Now we have a situation where people even up until 30 are fundamentally large children, living at home and looked after by guilty parents who feel they didn’t give them the time they feel they should have with both parents working. If you employ anyone of this generation it is clear how immature they are simply because they have still not accepted responsibility for their own existences because they don’t have or want to.
‘Most people of my generation couldn’t wait to leave home, to strike out on my own and create my own life. It was a huge struggle..’
It was a lot less of a struggle in the 50s/ 60s/ 70s/ 80s/ early 90s than it is now. About an order of magnitude less.
Xi doesn’t need to “convince” anyone to do anything. Once he has a fully implemented digital currency to add to his social credit system, he will effectively be able to render the Luo Huazhongs of China invisible and irrelevant. Either they will alter their behavior or starve, and considering China’s sex ratio, either solution works to Xi’s benefit.
Perhaps these work drop-outs are already in the barter economy as is much of rural China. I doubt they can do much about the rebellion going on. And the adverse sex ratio really has led to many dissatisfied young men.
I do have a question for this website. Why are there SO FEW people discussing the linkage between Tang Ping and “quiet quitting”? Something is up here and you seem to be one of the few sites seeing this.
The only reasonable person here…
Look at the future that zoomers are inheriting, There is no reward left that can trump (pun intended) greed of power, environmental degradation, climate disaster, the aforementioned consolidation of power and the apathy left in it’s wake.
As a parent of a gen z’r, I feel palpable sympathy for them.
So, my contemporaries (gen x) are quiet quitting as well, Alison. Why? For the same damn reason. Exploitation is exploitation whether self inflicted or not. We do know our value and we want to be compensated for that. We also value our time given as something more than transactional.
Maybe quiet quitting is simply a reflection of the truth that our planet is providing. Though, in the geological timeframe, the earth can do what it does while we destroy ourselves. So, maybe we can give back a little and consume less by giving consideration to lying flat.
Ancient Chinese saying: When a man sorrows, his body is pressed to the ground.
I appreciate and agree with a lot of the comments thus far (Stephen, Allison, John, Prashant & Laura). Thanks.
I would say that there are clear common threads across the world – from ‘quiet quitting’ to ‘working to rule’ (but working to rule has traditionally been a coordinated trade union response and coordination is one thing absent from these contemporary trends. It is all very individualised (individuated).
Demoralisation is common, true.
I don’t want to overplay it, but I would only say that opting out in the western world is individualistic (narcissistic) and reasonably negative. While it’s true that opting out in China is equally nihilistic it actually is a significant challenge to the state, and to Party authority. In that way, it takes the form of a potentially radical act (but with very little actual positive content.) I hope that makes sense.
This sick global neoliberal cult of always growth and always more has triggered a backlash. Time to end this.
To this article’s author, Austin Williams:
Xi Jinping’s last name is Xi. Referring to him in your essay as Jinping shows an alarming lack of knowledge about China and Chinese, which engenders doubts about your knowledge of China and the reliability of this essay.
While it’s important to get the details right, I wouldn’t downgrade this article’s credibility merely on account of China’s wonky naming conventions. And for someone making such a pedantic point, it’s pretty odd that you write that ‘Xi Jinping’s last name is Xi’. That’s a contradiction in terms. If that’s the case, then why didn’t you write ‘Jinping Xi’s last name is Xi’.
What you are trying to say, it seems, is that Xi Jinping’s family name is Xi. If you’re going to raise points like this, get it right yourself.
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