Chinese Millennials Opting Out of the Rat Race

07/27/21 08:49AM EDT

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Chinese Millennials Opting Out of the Rat Race - AdobeStock 67642976

Some Chinese Millennials are rebelling against society by “lying flat.” The “tangping” movement has emerged as a rallying cry for young people who see no chances for upward mobility. (The New York Times)

NH: The tangping, or “lying flat” movement, has drawn comparisons to the 1950s Beat Generation. Young people who subscribe to this way of life aspire to, well, do nothing.

They want out of the rat race. Lying flat means not getting married, not having children, not holding a steady job, not owning property, and consuming as little as possible.

The movement grew out of an April post on the Chinese discussion forum Tieba. The 31-year-old author, who quit his job as a factory worker five years ago, wrote about enjoying a low-stress, low-cost life. He called tangping a form of “justice."

His post went viral, with tangping groups springing up and attracting thousands of members. More than 60% of over 240,000 respondents in a Weibo poll said tangping was “their idea of the good life.”

But it’s the opposite of what the CCP wants for its people. State censors have gone after tangping with a fervor that other Chinese internet transgressions haven’t drawn. The original viral post was deleted, along with multiple discussion groups. Regulators banned the sale of merchandise branded with tangping messaging.

The state news media weighed in, too. Newspapers labeled the philosophy “shameful” and exhorted young people “to choose to work hard!” An academic from Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University described tangping as “an extremely irresponsible attitude that not only disappoints one’s parents but also hundreds of millions of taxpayers.” Ouch.

To understand why the CCP sees tangping as a threat, it's important to explain what the movement is not.

Tangping followers aren't like, say, Japan's hikikomori. They aren't ashamed or uncomfortable interacting with society. It's not that they have difficulty succeeding; they just don't want to. These are people who left middle-class jobs--in finance, tech, manufacturing, entertainment--or who still work but have scaled back their hours.

They also aren't like China's "bare branches" men, who want to succeed within the system but are held back by abject poverty, little education, or status as a rural outsider or an ethnic minority.

Many tangping followers come from well-off urban families. While some support themselves with odd jobs, others can live like this because they're financially supported by their parents.

The Beat Generation comparison is apt because most of these people similarly have access to what they need to succeed--especially education--but simply choose not to.

The appeal of tangping also isn't limited to just one gender. It's not as if men are opting out to the universal disapproval of women. Since this movement has drawn both men and women, there isn't really any gender-role pressure that might persuade those who have left to rejoin the system. 

As Shanghai resident Zhiyuan Zhang told Insider, he’s simply past caring. "I 'lie flat' because this is the way my life is meant to be,” he said. “If people think I'm a loser, then so be it."

All of this leaves the CCP in a tricky position. Tangping rejects the two things the government wants to keep the economy expanding and the nation rising: hard work and consumption. But the party can't easily "purge" these youth because so many come from powerful families.

They're also not openly hostile or confrontational. Party officials might feel they have no choice but to continue responding as they are now: denouncing the philosophy publicly, but leaving the individuals alone.

Could tangping eventually become a powerful political movement? If they are analogous to the American Beat Generation, it's worth recalling what happened to the generation of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady.

The beatniks themselves kept a low profile, but the generation who came along after them and grew up learning from them took a much more aggressive stand, opposing the "Establishment" outright. 

And we all know what happened next: A flourishing counter-culture took hold that made America a lot less easier to govern than it had been before.

While I doubt such a transformation is due to hit China any time soon--not until another generation comes of age, at any rate--I'm sure that the very possibility must keep many CCP leaders up at night. A direct political challenge (as at Tiananmen Square) can always be handled.

But a sudden shift in the popular culture? That's a lot harder to deal with. As Mao put it: Once the opposition becomes one with the people, it becomes invincible.

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ABOUT NEIL HOWE

Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.

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