The CCP Faces Its Greatest Challenge Yet: Apathetic Youths
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is no stranger to censorship. It’s censored references to Falun Gong and the Dalai Lama, the Tiananmen Square Massacre and Winnie the Pooh. Lately, it’s added a new term to the blacklist – tang ping, which means “lying flat.”
Tang ping is a new social movement in China that’s growing in popularity, especially amongst young people. It rejects the grueling 996 work schedule in China (under which people are expected to work from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week) in favor of a simpler, less ambitious lifestyle, eschewing the rat race and typical milestones of adult life like home ownership and starting a family. It rejects materialism, consumerism, and capitalism in general. Its founder is Luo Huazhong, who, five years ago, at the age of 26, quit his job as a factory worker in Sichuan province to go live in Tibet, getting by on his savings and by doing odd jobs. Last April, he published a post on his blog titled “Lying Flat is Justice,” which has since been deleted by the authorities, though it has popped up elsewhere. In it, he described his unapologetically easygoing lifestyle, and included a picture of himself lying in bed covered with a blanket. “I have been chilling,” he wrote. “I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong.
Luo’s essay went viral in China, and his sentiment was echoed by many other young people. “Sending resumes was like fishing for a needle in the ocean,” said one, “you’re beaten up by society and just want a more relaxed life…‘lying flat’ is not waiting to die. I still work, but just don’t overstretch.” “I loaf around on the job whenever I can,” said another, “refusing to work overtime, not worrying about promotions, and not participating in corporate drama.” One netizen compared his lifestyle to that of Diogenes, the cynical philosopher of ancient Greece who renounced “respectable society” to live in a barrel. “Only by lying down can humans become the measure of all things,” that netizen wrote. Tang ping has since grown into a countercultural movement, to the point that e-commerce platforms started selling apparel and phone cases with the word printed in it – before they were banned by China’s internet authorities. (Although tang ping has only recently gained popularity, the term apparently appeared for the first time in 2011 in a forum post against marriage, which was then re-posted on the popular social network Baidu. Memes using a picture from a movie screenshot showing a man lying down appeared as early as 2016.)
Diogenes by John William Waterhouse
In response, state-controlled media outlet Nanfang Daily called tang ping “a poisonous chicken soup” that injects negative energy into Chinese youth. Li Fengling, associate professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of Education, condemned tang ping as “shameful,” “irresponsible,” and “contrary to socialist ethics.”
Before long, the heavy hammer of censorship fell upon tang ping. An online tang ping forum, where members shared advice on how to live for cheap while working as little as possible, was shut down by authorities after reaching 200,000 members. A reddit post listing seven steps to build your tang ping life has been censored as well.
Why is the Chinese government so afraid of tang ping? Because the movement threatens China’s power. By refusing to work, tang ping youths decrease the economy’s productivity. By refusing to consume, they hamper Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plans for an internal market that can compensate for foreign countries decoupling from China. By refusing to marry and have children, they aggravate one of China’s most serious problems: its ageing population.
Anyone who observes China today faces the challenge of discerning the true opinion of its citizens. The true feelings of its 1.4 billion people are strangled by coercion, stifled by censorship, and drowned out by propaganda. But tang ping undermines the CCP’s narrative that Chinese people are happy worker drones who are willing to serve the state. The youth who refuse to work, buy, and breed, are not likely to help build Xi’s “China Dream,” or volunteer to serve as cannon fodder in the Taiwan Strait. In short, they eschew nationalism and collectivism in favor of an individualism that’s completely at odds with the image of Chinese people that Beijing is trying to project. The tang ping movement contributes to a demystification of the Chinese people, one that contradicts CCP propaganda of a terrifying, monolithic, unstoppable mass of fanatic workaholics whose élan is about to overwhelm the planet. Instead, we discover individuals with many of the same aspirations, fragilities, and anxieties as their Western counterparts, we discover that young Chinese people are just like the others, after all.
The youth who refuse to work, buy, and breed, are not likely to help build Xi’s “China Dream,” or volunteer to serve as cannon fodder in the Taiwan Strait.
Indeed, the emergence of prosperity and capitalism in China was, sooner or later, going to create a counterculture similar to what appeared in Western democracies. China may now be going through its Sixties, its hippie movement. Not everyone in America was a hippie in 1969, but Woodstock was big enough to shake its society and cause significant reforms. Part of the countercultural movement also relished in simple living and rejected consumerism, marriage, and careers. Today, China sees a new generation of Bartlebys refusing to blindly follow the rules and turning to spiritual, hedonistic alternatives that would not be out of place in 1960s San Francisco. Like the baby-boomers of the Western world, these young Chinese were born into relative prosperity, and have no intention of toiling like their parents did.
In fact, the whole concept of slowing down and embracing a simple life is much more in line with Chinese culture than the CCP would like people to believe. Tang ping is reminiscent of the Taoist concept of wu wei (literally “doing nothing”): action through non-action, going with the flow of the universe, and not forcing fate. The old opposition between Taoist and Confucian and Legalist philosophies is re-emerging in Communist China. China’s “Asian values” might surpass the Protestant work ethic in promoting industriousness, but there are other traditions running through Chinese culture, some of which incline people towards torpor.
Of course, all this should be viewed in context. Chinese people generally do work much harder than their foreign counterparts – 41.8 hours a week in 2017, compared to 33.8 in the US, 29.1 in France, and 26 in Germany. Someone is hardly a slacker for eschewing the 996 routine. It is not that these tang ping youths don’t want to work at all, it is that they want to work less – and “less” for many of them would probably still be a lot. Still, they could throw a wrench in China’s economy, as the clock is ticking on its ageing population, and the country is under immense pressure to “get rich before it grows old.” (In the 1990s, the Japanese government was similarly worried about the emergence of “freeters”, a portmanteau of “free” and “arbeiters,” the German word for workers, i.e. young people lacking a permanent job. Though Japanese freeters were first seen as involuntary underemployed, they are now mostly young people who desire more free time.) Workers operating at less than optimum capacity can significantly hobble an economy – during WWII, the Allies seemed to recognize this when they distributed a manual within Nazi-occupied Europe, which taught disaffected Europeans how to sabotage Hitler’s war efforts by being deliberately bad employees and wasting as much time at work as possible.
Japanese cartoon character Gudetama (lazy egg), who personifies the malaise of young Japanese (Picture Credit: Dan Nevill)
The CCP is also at a bit of a loss on how to handle the tang ping movement because it is so passive. The CCP’s response to it has thus far been limited to banning hashtags and closing forums. But how do you force people to buy more than they want? And, if people refuse to buy more than the bare necessities, why would they want to work more? How do you stop people from doing…nothing? As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Likewise, even if you force workers to go to the office, you can’t make them work efficiently. Of course, the CCP could decide to punish slackers as traitors and follow the Soviet path of forced Stakhanovism, but the PRC fears nothing more than following the tracks of the USSR. This leaves the Party with little leverage to use against its tang ping youth.
The CCP is also at a bit of a loss on how to handle the tang ping movement because it is so passive.
The CCP is used to brutally crushing organized protest movements, but tang ping is not an organized movement. Rather, it’s an amorphous goo that gums up the cogs of the machine. Tang ping isn’t political, and it has no structure for the Party to attack, it’s only a blurred mass of underachievers who can’t be bothered to listen to the central government. In 1949, Mao Zedong announced the victory of the CCP over its enemies and the dawn of Communist rule in China, declaring that “the Chinese people have stood up!” It would be fitting if the CCP’s downfall came about because Chinese people decided to lie down.