A young Chinese netizen posted the following on social media:
“I’ve not been working for 2 years; just bumming around. My conscience is clear. Stress comes mainly from the people around me scrambling to find their place in the social hierarchy and the traditional values of my elders. And it pokes you anytime, anywhere. Whenever you do a search online, trending stories are all about celebrity romances and pregnancy tips. It’s as if some “invisible animal” is pressuring you to think a certain way. But as humans, we don’t have to conform. I could get into Diogenes syndrome and sleep in a barrel under the sun. I could follow Heraclitus into a cave to contemplate logos. Since this land has never given any room for individual expression, let me create some for myself. Lying flat is the wise man’s exercise. Only by lying flat can humans set a standard for the universe.“
A new term has been trending on Chinese social media and that is 躺平 “tang ping” or lie flat. The author’s rant quickly went viral, resonating with numerous young people in China today. 躺平 reflects the severity and toxicity of the rat race in China, causing many people who are just starting out to find the struggle futile. Young people like the author of that piece above feel hopeless and for a good reason. The rat race in China has become a pyramid scheme.
As wealth is deeply entrenched as a measure of one’s worth in almost all Chinese societies, starting at the base of the pyramid places enormous stress on young people to climb to a respectable level.
With property prices soaring into the stratosphere and with incomes so low that it’s virtually impossible for young people to enjoy the lifestyle they deserve and still be able to support a family, it may not be that foolish to quit the pyramid scheme. Fresh graduates without any connections find it useless to work hard. With the meagre pay being offered to fresh graduates nowadays, many would rather “lie flat” and lead a life of destitution, without the usual pursuits of the well-educated like cars, houses, family and children.
Worryingly, this situation also plagues many societies which are wealthy in GDP terms. The average income rises rapidly, but as many Chinese people clarified, their incomes have been averaged out by billionaires to look good. Similarly in Singapore, there are folks who own 2, 3, 4 or even more properties. This “demand” has driven up prices so much that people buying their first property are struggling to service the mortgage unless they have a fat paycheck.
Soon after “lie flat” went viral, the authorities and supporting celebrities and influencers in China lashed out at these feckless youngsters, lecturing to the public that one can accept one’s fate, but one must never “lie flat”. Lying flat was officially disallowed. Forums sharing grouses and discussing 躺平 have been deleted. And to add oil to fire, the authorities, on 1 June 2021 (Children’s Day), tried to encourage young Chinese couples to have 3 children. It’s financially draining enough to bring up one child “properly” (tuition, music and enrichment classes thrown in) in China. Three children would be a sick joke for the majority of couples still struggling to make ends meet.
Government-approved celebrities sprang into action and exerted their influence, urging young people not to complain about skyrocketing property prices, low wages and high levels of stress. They postulated that high property prices indicate that the country is wealthy. How to afford them? Keep working harder and harder and harder. This shows a major disconnect between those who have arrived and those who still at the start of the rat race. The apex of the pyramid is a crowded place. At the bottom, are the workhorses encouraged to produce more workhorses.
According to a 2019 report, 2% of the people in China own 80% of the wealth in the country. A classless society? Hardly. The most unwittingly telling part of the response from the authorities is the statement 认命可以，躺平不行。You can be resigned to your fate, but you can’t lie flat. What does that mean? Does that mean that plebeians must accept their stations in life and allow the exploitation to go on? Statements like that stirred even more resentment on social media. The censors struggled to block comments.
Why are the authorities so perturbed by 躺平? Well, with only the top 2% of the population entitled to 80% of the wealth in the country, the rest of the 98% are not allowed to complain or change anything! The 98% must continue to struggle, only to maintain the status quo. And the status quo keeps driving home the message that those at the top of the social ladder are extremely important while those at the bottom are worthless. Can the latter be blamed for not having the will to compete with others in the rat race?
The steeper the social pyramid gets, the greater the status anxiety within the population. People become rude, selfish and unfriendly. Comparative studies done in several developed countries have shown that the prevalence in mental illness increases with the degree of social inequality. There has been a spate of random attacks on total strangers on the streets by deranged individuals in China lately. That’s the equivalent of shooting incidents in the US. But if the Chinese people have as many guns that Americans have, what could happen in China? Allowing people to 躺平 might be a better alternative than than turning them into deranged individuals. Depression often results from the inability to stop or escape from a position of defeat and oppression.
Actually 躺平 is not a new phenomenon. In ancient times, government officials who had grown sick and tired of the corrupt system had become wandering poets. Some had also become monks or hermits. The legendary Zhuge Liang was a recluse who had been living in the mountains and lying flat in today’s terms before Liu Bei went on his knees to beg him to save the dynasty.
To lie flat or tang ping is the inevitable result of extreme social inequality. When the majority have no chance to level up with the elite no matter how hard they work, they have every right to choose a different path in life. The results could be disastrous but only 2% are hurt most. The rest may not have much to lose.