Young people in China are channeling the 60s and it worries their Communist overlords. They are rejecting consumerism, hard work and all that other middle class stuff. They are lying flat. Literally.

A story in the New York Times describes how youth in China are rebelling against the country’s work ethic. Twelve-hour shifts six days a week is losing its lustre.

The catalyst for the movement was Luo Huazhong who, five years ago, decided to commit himself to doing what he enjoyed most—nothing. He quit his job in a factory and decided he could survive on odd jobs and small withdrawals from his savings. He wrote a blog post entitled “Lying Flat is Justice” with a photo of himself in a dark room with the curtains drawn. It went viral and was adopted by millennials as an anti-consumerist manifesto.

“Lying flat” (“tangping” in Mandarin) means being marginally employed, forgoing marriage and children, and rejecting materialism. It contains echos of 1960s Western youth rejecting the consumerism that dominated their countries in the 1950s.

Oxford University social anthropologist Xiang Biao suggests the tangping culture is a turning point for China, saying “Young people … realize that material betterment is no longer the single most important source of meaning in life.”

Tangping has received much the same response from China’s elders as flower power and counterculture generally did from an older generation in the West. Communist authorities find it offensive to their design for the country, the very opposite of what they want for their people. They deleted Mr. Huazhong’s post and have been busy censoring mentions of lying flat on the Internet and deleting tangping forums.

The authorities are wise to be concerned. The movement may turn out to be not only a backlash against China’s hypercompetitive work environment, but possibly against Communism as well. One dropout referred to his action as “silent resistance.”

Maybe Tangping has promise beyond China. In a world of unsustainable consumption, it has great potential. Practiced widely enough perhaps it could help bring humanity’s demands in line with Earth’s capacity.

2 thoughts on “China—Lying flat confronts consumerism … and Communism?”
  1. The Chinese government has little appetite for defiance, Bill. We’ve seen that with the democracy advocates of Hong Kong. It’s hard to imagine them tolerating slackers, especially those who would like to create a counter-culture.

    Uighurs go to re-education camps. Protesters are jailed. Slackers, maybe a sting in the Army of the Peoples Republic?

    The one party state monolith is not to be toyed with.

  2. There’s a companion piece, also in the NYT, about young Chinese embracing Mao to turn on Chinese capitalism.

    “In a modern China grappling with widening social inequality, Mao’s words provide justification for the anger many young people feel toward a business class they see as exploitative. They want to follow in his footsteps and change Chinese society — and some have even talked about violence against the capitalist class if necessary.”

    Kids, eh? They’ll never change but Beijing’s patience may be tested and who knows how that could play out.

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