Summary: “Lying Flat” movement of Chinese youth attacks capitalist culture — Editors
The most recent cultural trend among the young people in China called for an anti-work, anti-consumption, and low-desire lifestyle. They playfully called this lifestyle as tangping (“lying flat”), the ultimate gesture of inaction. Overnight, tangping became a buzzword on social media. The tangping trend contained different strains, but one thing common to all the tangpingists is their protest against the cutthroat work culture and high cost of living. In a swift response, the government launched a censorship campaign. State media such as the Xinhuanet also stepped in to criticize the anti-work sentiments. Is tangping politically subversive? Does it contain the potential for collective action?
The tangping discourse all started with Luo Huazhong’s viral forum post in April 2021. In that post, a photo of Luo Huazhong shows him in his bed, covered with a blanket. The curtains are closed to shut out the daylight. Luo had been out of regular jobs for more than two years. He had to limit his spending, but other than that, the abundant leisure time was enjoyable. He explained that the pervasive status anxiety in Chinese society was but a product of narrow values and peer pressure. In reality, there was nothing wrong with idling around— “lying flat is justice,” says the title of his post.
Luo’s post seemed to have struck a chord among the urban young people, who felt they were unlikely to maintain a middle-class lifestyle even they work nonstop. On the Internet, people exchanged their personal experiences and tips on how to survive with minimal work and spending. On the Reddit-like website Baidu Tieba, users gathered on a derelict forum that happened to bear the name tangping. The registered members there dramatically grew from 170 to 196,772 before the forum was shut down in early June. 519,125 tangping-related posts were produced within a one-month period. According to an online demographic survey, the vast majority of the 196,772 users were 18–34-year-old males who lived in economically developed southern provinces. At other social media haunts, such as Douban Groups, similar forums and blogs mushroomed.
In the background of the tangping trend was the so-called involution. “Involution” (neijuan) is another buzzword that gained traction earlier, in 2020. Originally, anthropologist Clifford Geertz used this word to describe how, in Indonesian societies, the farmers responded to population growth by investing more labor power in farming the limited land. This growth in agriculture led to decreased per capita output but not technological or social change. In short, involution refers to a type of growth without transformative development.
However unlikely, this term suddenly went mainstream in China last year, albeit with a different definition. In popular usage, the term does not mainly refer to stagnation in productivity, but more specifically to the intensive but inefficient work culture. There is, however, more than one interpretation of the cause of involution. According to the more widely held conservative interpretation, involution happens because some employees want to get ahead of others by volunteering to work overtime and spending hours on making beautiful slides. Many employees complain that they have to waste energy on pleasing the boss with over-performance because of their competitive colleagues. A widely circulated analogy captures this perceived dynamic really well: “Imagine you are in a movie theatre. Suddenly a spectator stands up. In order to see the silver screen, the other spectators have no choice but to stand up as well. In the end, everyone sees the film while standing.”
This conservative interpretation often takes professional office work as an archetype of the general working conditions in contemporary China. It is thus inevitable that the term takes on a class nature. As Oxford professor Biao Xiang says, “involution expresses the anxiety of the middle class.” It is also detrimental to (broadly defined) working-class solidarity because it makes workers think of their co-workers as the source of their misery. What it overlooks are labor-capital relations and the basic capitalist logic at work. Currently, businesses are either encouraged or forced to implement increasingly harsher criteria for performance appraisal. The now well-known 996 working hour system, in which an employee works from 9 am to 9 pm six days a week, is particularly common in the professional and tech industries in China. Workplace communication through instant messengers (such as Wechat and Dingding) is often mandatory; this means that employees often have to respond to work-related requests even when they are off work. The companies also deliberately put the entry-level employees under more precarious conditions. In the so-called “last one out” system, workers who underperforms their colleagues are fired. Even the most capable employees cannot break away from the vicious cycle of overwork since the employers will typically reward competence with more work.
Despite the overwork issues and precarity, white-collar jobs are often attractive because of their good wages and social prestige. This contemporary type of exploitation is jokingly called the 345 system by some. That is, an employer hires three people to do the work of five workers and pays them the wages of four workers. These workers are heavily exploited precisely because they earn more than average workers. For young professional workers who have received years of education, getting a well-paid job at an IT company or government agency is a proven path for the middle-class lifestyle. Even when their workload turns out to be unbearable, they find it difficult to just quit and find a more relaxed job that pays less. Tangping as a practice reflects precisely this dilemma by suggesting that a crucial part of anti-work politics is to adapt to a low-desire lifestyle and accept downward social mobility.
This labor situation is the product of China’s long-term labor-unfriendly policies, with which the Chinese market has attracted foreign investment and attained comparative advantage in export. As a result, companies compete not by innovations but by a “race to the bottom” through lowering labor costs and violating labor rights. The post-2009 low growth, the China-US trade war, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic only exposed and intensified such labor exploitation. This is also to say, involution was not a new phenomenon, and it only became a buzzword recently because the population of the precariat was enlarged within the middle class.
The core idea of tangping, the refusal of work, is intrinsically a form of protest against exploitation and alienation. However, this fact alone is not enough to explain how people perceive the nature and significance of the anti-work politics of tangping. As with the case of involution, conservative and radical interpretations coexist within the larger trend. According to some Internet pundits, tangping is a philosophy of life that emphasizes self-reflection and intellectual independence from mainstream society. The purpose of “lying down” is to eventually “stand up” as a wiser person.This type of interpretation in effect repackages tangping into a self-help truism. Some other people speak of tangping’s potential to bring economic benefits to the working people: “to tangping is to raise the cost for the capitalists on human resources, which will, in turn, make our per capita income higher.” However, this depoliticized economic theory is flawed. An anti-work politics probably poses little real threat with passive and isolated tangping since China is already witnessing a low point of demand for labor as a result of the recent economic slowdown. This is particularly true with white-collar jobs. Therefore, a few people who engage in tangping will unlikely influence the market in any significant way. More importantly, the optimistic views overlook the fact that tangpingists cannot truly recede from social production in the contemporary capitalist world by simply quitting their jobs. Tangpingists typically have to occupy an even more precarious position in the labor market and sustain their lives by taking highly exploitative day jobs.
For many, however, tangping represents more than just anti-work politics and does usher in a more radical form of counterculture response to a number of contemporary social issues. In June, a meme-like oath was spreading among those who playfully or seriously took tangping as a spiritual calling: “Starting from today, I will not marry, or buy an apartment, or have a child . . . I will be a slacker at the workplace, a vagabond in the city, a blunt sword to fend off consumerism, and a ray of light that tears apart the shadows of involution.” In other words, tangping represents a full set of protests against how the imperatives of production and consumption capture such basic elements of life as marriage and childcare. Thoroughly renouncing the ideals of the middle-class life, tangping does have the potential to connect labor struggles with a cultural critique of contemporary society.
In fact, there are people who see in tangping a potential of developing into a subversive form of collective action. An anonymous post, entitled “The Tangpingist Manifesto” captures this potential really well. According to the post, tangping puts forth a “great refusal,” a term probably borrowed from Herbert Marcuse, who argues that the most revolutionary opposition in a society is to be found in “the substratum of outcasts and outsiders.” The manifesto envisions tangpingto be similar to the Italian workerism that took shape in the 1960s-1970s. Workerism claims that the expansion of capitalism includes the expansion of relations of production beyond the site of factory; the institutions of the whole society socialize individuals for the purpose of capitalist production. In other words, society becomes a social factory. The Workerist struggle thus includes a refusal to be defined and appropriated by work. If work has encroached on the social space outside the factory walls, then refusing work means to refuse the social relations occupied by work and its capitalist logic.
However, refusal alone would only lead to isolated resistance that often — and ironically –nourishes late capitalism. Therefore, as the manifesto also claims, tangping is promising because it can link together an entire generation, all of those who refuse to work, study, marry, and give birth. These connections will help create alternative social spaces or “mutual-aid communal relations.” Clearly, the manifesto intends to transform tangping into a real philosophy of resistance, focusing not on inaction but on mutual aid and autonomy. While this manifesto certainly does not represent the majority view, it demonstrates the awareness that whether tangping can become a real resistance movement depends on two questions: first, whether it would be able to articulate a collective refusal of the capitalist saturation of contemporary social arrangements and, second, whether their passive refusal can transform into a creative practice of alternative communities.
 Meagan Day. “China’s Downwardly Mobile Millennials Are Throwing in the Towel.” Jacobin Magazine. Retrieved September 1, 2021 (https://jacobinmag.com/2021/06/chinese-students-white-collar-workers-millennials-lying-flat-tang-ping).
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 See note 3
 See note 1.
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 Herbert Marcuse. 2002. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. London and New York: Routledge Classics. P.260