Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 20 June 2021


China Isn’t Going to Take This Lying Down

For the establishment, nothing is more dangerous than finding out young people today just don’t buy into its values. 

What if everyone does it?
What if everyone does it? Photographer: Wang Xi/Xinhua/Getty

As it approaches its centenary, the Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with the specter of collapse. The world’s longest-surviving Leninist state is constantly on alert for potential challenges to its authority; for years, it has spent more on domestic security than on the rapidly expanding defense budget. How to counter a foe that refuses to stand up, though?

“Lying flat” is a potential threat, however ephemeral, to the social contract that has held China together for more than three decades. The phenomenon, which has gripped social media in recent weeks, describes the growing tendency of urban youths to opt out of the rat race and take unambitious, low-paying jobs or not work at all, eschewing conventional goals in favor of a minimalist, subsistence existence. It’s a social movement that is reminiscent of the West’s hippies in the 1960s or, more recently, the hikikomori hermits of Japan.

Ever since the Tiananmen crackdown of 1989, the Communist Party has tied its legitimacy to economic development. In essence, the implicit bargain has been: Refrain from demanding political reform or challenging the government’s grip on power, and the party will deliver constantly rising incomes and living standards. It has been spectacularly successful in this (even if the pace of progress owes something to a low base that was the result of the party’s own earlier policy disasters). Needless to say, a loss of economic vitality would pose a danger to this compact, which explains the government’s single-minded focus on maintaining high rates of growth. But so does a population that no longer desires the material advancements the party is offering.

Hence the hand-wringing in official media that “lying flat” has provoked. A commentator in the Nanfang Daily, a party newspaper, called the trend “not only unjust, but also shameful.” Lying flat was “poisonous chicken soup” with no value, said the article, which enjoined China’s young people to recommit to a traditional Communist virtue: “At any time, no matter what stage of development, struggle is always the brightest background of youth.”

Such angst might seem out of proportion. A fringe movement of layabout youths isn’t going to cause society to collapse, any more than the 1960s counter-culture really upended the political structure. Nevertheless, on an ideological and spiritual level, it undermines President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream, which demands assiduous work and selfless devotion to the cause of national rejuvenation and raising China’s power and influence in the world. It’s a project without room for dropouts.

Lying flat is a lifestyle choice rather than an overtly political act. Yet it amounts to a repudiation of how China’s economy and society have developed. Inequality has exploded since the country adopted pro-market reforms in the late 1970s, and wealth and income disparities have become increasingly rigid in the past decade. As economic growth slows, the competition for advancement gets more intense. The technology industry espouses a “996” culture — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — that on occasion has worked people to death. Faced with what they consider a rigged game controlled by entrenched elites, the flat-liers have decided that their best option is to refuse to play. Instead of working hard and saving to buy property and a car, to get married and have children, their choice is to withdraw and settle for a life of renounced desires.

“Now it’s been more than two years since I worked last. All I have been doing is enjoying my leisure,” reads one account featured on the blog of retired U.S. diplomat David Cowhig, who has translated several articles on the trend. “Nothing wrong with that.”

It’s ironic (though perhaps inevitable) that, having adopted the methods of a market economy to achieve its goal of creating a moderately prosperous society, China now finds itself beset with an identifiably capitalist affliction. Opting out and doing nothing requires a base level of affluence that would be impractical in a country still trying to drag itself out of poverty. Yet beyond a certain point, material goals cease to satisfy human needs — a syndrome that is familiar in many developed countries.

Capitalism is a perpetual motion machine, driven by an inexorable logic of expansion. The profits of production are invested in more production, which requires ever-expanding markets to consume what is made. This gives rise to the advertising and marketing industries, whose job it is to convince consumers that fulfillment lies in more and better things. All this makes capitalism a prodigious generator of goods and services. It also tends to generate feelings of alienation and anxiety.

That’s because the answer to human happiness doesn’t lie in sating material desires (something that Buddhists have known for thousands of years). In the U.S. context, this can be seen in novels such as Revolutionary Road, the 1961 classic by Richard Yates, which expresses the hollowness and inauthenticity at the heart of the American Dream amid the suburban affluence of the postwar years. The German psychologist and critic of capitalism Erich Fromm argued that a society in which “consumption has become the de facto goal” was sick, and bemoaned how marketing transformed everything into a commodity. 

A Stalinist political system is a perpetual motion machine of another kind, fueled by paranoia. The motherland is surrounded by enemies, and the people must constantly redouble their efforts and unite behind their savior-leader to beat back the existential threats it faces. Having abandoned (or at least postponed) the Communist ideals of equality and solidarity, Xi has turned to nationalism and perceptions of a hostile world to reinforce belief in the necessity of the party’s leadership. “Universal values” such as democracy and human rights are a foreign plot designed to weaken and destabilize China; discussion of such pernicious influences has been banished.

What is intriguing about the “lying flat” wave is that it shows how similar the Chinese experience is when faced with the same conditions as other countries. Political control has its limits. For all Xi’s attempts to foster a sense of Chinese exceptionalism and reinforce Communist orthodoxy, society may develop in unexpected ways. It’s also a reminder that China has other traditions besides the rigid Legalist philosophy that characterizes Xi’s grip on power. Lying flat contains more than a hint of Daoism, which emphasizes harmony with nature. The Daoist poet Li Bai seems to have spent most of his time drinking wine and enjoying the company of friends; he reputedly drowned while leaning drunkenly out of his boat to see the moon's reflection in the river. The Communist press wouldn’t have approved.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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