Hu Ai was stuck in traffic with her parents during the Labour Day holiday last month when she finally realised China’s culture of overwork had become too much.
“My boss called and told me to walk from the highway to the nearest subway station and rush back to work on an urgent assignment,” the 33-year-old recalled.
“That’s the first time my parents found out how hard my job is and it made my mum cry in the car.”
In the weeks that followed, Hu – who works for a media company in Shenzhen – found solace in a form of online social protest sweeping through the world’s second largest economy.
Young Chinese fed up with what they see as limited prospects in the face of gruelling work hours, a trend of conspicuous consumption and skyrocketing house prices are choosing to do the bare minimum. Instead of striving to buy a house, car, or even start a family , they are rejecting it all to “lie flat”.
From white-collar workers in China’s bustling cities to university students, an army of frustrated young people are taking to social media and internet message boards to declare themselves “‘lying flat youth”.
Across the country, T-shirts printed with “Do nothing lie flat youth” have become hot selling items, and authorities are scrambling to suppress the phenomenon, fearful about a challenge to the established social and economic order.
The movement’s roots can be traced back to an obscure internet post called “lying flat is justice”, in which a user called Kind-Hearted Traveller combined references to Greek philosophers with his experience living on 200 yuan (S$41.41) a month, two meals a day and not working for two years.
“I can just sleep in my barrel enjoying a sunbath like Diogenes, or live in a cave like Heraclitus and think about ‘Logos’,” the person wrote.
“Since there has never really been a trend of thought that exalts human subjectivity in this land, I can create it for myself. Lying down is my wise man movement.”
According to the anonymous poster, this humble existence left them physically healthy and mentally free.
Although the original post has been scrubbed from the internet by censors, copies have spread quickly online, sparking lively discussion and videos that have garnered millions of views each.
“This topic is so hot among college students,” said Jane Peng, a 19-year-old university student in Shaoguan, Guangdong province. “We seem to have woken up suddenly and see a new way out.”
Elaine Tang, who works for a Guangzhou-based tech firm, said the term was resonating with young Chinese who saw the odds stacked against them .
“In recent years, property prices have skyrocketed, and the gap between social classes has become wider and wider,” said the 35 year old, who has been married seven years but not yet had children.
“The rich and the authorities monopolise most of the resources, and more and more working class like us have to work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, but still can’t afford a down payment [on a flat] or even the cost of having a child.”
A survey by Chinese microblogging site Weibo, conducted between May 28 and June 3, found 61 per cent of the 241,000 participants said they want to embrace the lying flat attitude.
The domestic economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic and trade tensions with the US have only made people more receptive to the idea.
The movement has worried authorities, who see it as a potential threat to China’s rapid economic growth and the dream of national rejuvenation.
In the long run, lying flat could not only affect Chinese consumption and growth, but lower the birth rate that is already eating up the country’s demographic dividend and threatening its social welfare system, according to economists and social commentators.
In recent weeks, the authorities have unleashed celebrities and state-run media to attack the movement. Social media chat groups have been blocked for talking about how to participate.
“China is at one of the most important stages of its long road to national rejuvenation. Young people are the hope of this country, and neither their personal situation nor the situation of this country will allow them to ‘collectively lie flat’,” said an editorial in the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid controlled by the Communist Party.
It is easy to understand the anxiety of Chinese authorities over the lying flat attitude, said Dr Gavin Sin Hin Chiu, an independent commentator and former associate professor at Shenzhen University.
“If it becomes widespread, it will affect young people’s expectations of income growth, consumption, marriage and childbirth, which will be detrimental to China’s ability to avoid the middle-income trap, where growth stagnates and incomes stall,” he said.
Chiu described the movement as a form of non-cooperative resistance against the ethic of hard work that authorities have promoted to spur on the working class since the beginning of China’s reform and opening period 40 years ago.
China’s per capita gross domestic (GDP) crossed the U$10,000 mark for the first time in 2019, a development stage that many countries stagnate at because they cannot progress from low-cost manufacturing into hi-tech industries.
“Local officials and scholars are concerned about the phenomenon of lying flat [because] it reflects young people’s resistance to the current social and economic model, as well as their confusion about the political order,” said Peng Peng, executive chairman of the Guangdong Society of Reform, a think tank connected to the provincial government.
Lying flat is not the only buzzword related to youthful disillusionment that has entered the Chinese lexicon recently.
The term “involution” has also gone viral. It was originally used in anthropology to describe agrarian societies that stagnate because, while their workload increases, a person’s output does not or cannot.
Amid the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the trade war, its use has become increasingly common. Everyone has to study or work harder than before, but they are faced with stagnating incomes, unemployment concerns and soaring costs for housing and child care.
Tech workers were among the first to comment on the involution in their lives, because those at big firms often work in a “996” culture – a schedule of 9am-9pm, six days a week. Others have even joked about a new work ethic – “007”, or “00.00am to 00.00pm” seven days a week.
“Most likely you will work hard your entire life but still not be able to afford a house. Maybe it’s better just to give up this goal,” said Frank Lin, a recent engineering graduate from one of China’s best universities who is an advocate for lying flat culture.
“Just because I graduated from a top university, it doesn’t mean I have a higher chance of buying a house.”
For Hu, whose frequent overtime has taken a toll on her health, the lying flat ethos provides her with comfort, because she knows is not alone in suffering from China’s culture of overworking.
“I used to like going shopping, especially after working hard overtime, to relieve stress,” she said.
“Now, I’m thinking about living a simple life, looking for a job with no overtime, two days off a week, earning 4,000 yuan a month. I don’t need to be so exhausted.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.