China, a nation that has exploded with growth over the last 40 years, has had one of the fastest-growing middle classes in the world – but the youth led ‘lie flat’ movement could change that. In 2000, one year before the country acceded to the World Trade Organization (WTO), 39.1 million people were classified as middle-class in China. In 2018, this swelled to 707 million, roughly half of the population.
With annual GDP growth north of 5% each year, the middle class has undoubtedly continued to grow in the last few years as more and more people move into cities in search of better-paid jobs and more lavish lives.
Why lie flat?
But this GDP-fueling rat race has led to an urbanized youthful generation who are feeling exhausted and unoptimistic about their future. The tan ping—or ‘lie flat’—movement is a movement made up of millennials and Gen Z who feel apathetic about their future and overwhelmed by the culture of hard work in Chinese big cities. It is, at heart, a backlash against the traditional professional and personal paths to success, such as studying hard, climbing the corporate ladder, buying property, and starting a family, because doing so—at least according to the proponents of tan ping—has become very hard.
The ‘lie flat’ movement is therefore innately linked to other macroeconomic issues in China, such as the low birth rate and high house prices. As China grows old, a dwindling workforce has meant that the working-age population is expected to work longer hours. At the same time, these younger workers are expected to provide for their older relatives, get on the property ladder, and have children of their own, all while struggling to afford healthcare and general amenities.
Young people predominantly live in big cities, where the cost of living has risen significantly in recent years. Many have been working hours similar to the 9-9-6 system once championed by tech entrepreneur Jack Ma, i.e., employees work from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, six days a week. This is a problem that is likely to get worse. China’s workforce is set to decrease by 35 million over the next five years as 40 million Chinese workers are set to retire.
New phrase, same meaning
Recently, a new phrase has been doing the rounds on Chinese social media. bai lan—which means ‘let it rot’—is a different branch of the same tree of apathy, despondency, and resentment felt by many young Chinese. These feelings are only likely to increase as the country’s zero-Covid approach significantly impacts the economy and state coffers, while locking young people inside for long periods of time. If China grows old before it gets rich, this generation will likely start to more actively question the authority of the Chinese Communist Party to govern.
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So it is about time that the CCP sat up and took notice. President Xi Jinping penned a piece in the CCP’s political theory journal Qiushi calling for better social mobility to ‘avoid involution and lying flat’. The party has some Jenga-like policy decisions to make. On the one hand, construction accounts for approximately 29% of China’s GDP and 10% of total jobs. On the other, urbanized middle classes need to experience house prices falling to a level that is affordable for them.
Currently, house prices in Beijing (and many other cities in China), are 40 times the average yearly wage. Any serious shake-up of the sector could see more developers defaulting, jobs lost, and projects unfinished—which could easily lead to people protesting in the streets. But at the same time, if houses continue to be unaffordable, apathy and resentment could become anger and rioting. ‘Lie flat’ is, essentially, at odds with President Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’ of rejuvenating the nation through hard work and sacrifice.
However, if President Xi and the CCP can turn the harsh macroeconomic tides in favour of the youth, these decentralized social media protests will not swell into something more threatening to the party.