“Want to see how it starts?” Ying, 21, asks Feng to point out the green hills above the Chinese city of Xiamen before turning on her camera. Stretching all the way to the coast, the city’s skyscrapers rise like spiers of steel and concrete above the green surroundings.

Ying Feng’s black hair and summer dress fluttered in the breeze as she sat down to watch the city below come to life. A lonely bird sings its song.

“My parents taught me that if I need peace, I can find it in church and in prayer,” she says in a WeChat call.

“But here in the hills outside Xiamen I find more peace than Christianity.”

The first rays of the rising sun hit her face above the water beyond Xiamen as she spoke.

“If only I could stop the sun right there,” she whispers, her gaze fixed on the red-orange color of the sky. “Then I can stay here.”

But she can’t stay. Instead, she stands up and puts her mask back on.

“I should be back,” she suddenly felt very tired even though the day had just started.

“My teaching internship will start soon.”

14 hours had passed when Ying Feng called again, and she was neatly folding her graduation gown in her rented apartment.

She recently completed a degree in music and teaching at university, but the occasion was less celebratory and more anxious.

“I can’t really be happy about it knowing how hard things are going to be after the summer,” she explains.

A work week of elementary school teacher by day, private tutoring at night, and piano teaching at weekends lay ahead of her. Even if she takes it all in, she feels she won’t be able to make enough money to save for an apartment or start a family.

Graduates from Chinese universities face increasingly tough competition for jobs, but some are opting out altogether, taking low-paying jobs that allow them more time for themselves. [File: Cnsphoto via Reuters]

Asked if the intense work-life approach with low pay has made her rethink her career path, Ying Feng remains silent.

“Sorry,” she apologizes and smiles tiredly. “12 hours of internship work has exhausted my brain. What was the question again?”

Hearing the question once again, Ying Feng sighs.

“Well, sometimes I just want to lay flat and let it all rot.”

lying flat

Ying Feng is not alone in her frustration.

“To let” (tang ping) and “let it rot” (bai lan) are two terms that are crying out for Chinese youth frustrated by the Chinese job market as well as the high expectations of Chinese society.

Since spring 2021, users on Chinese social media such as Douban, WeChat and Weibo have shared their own stories of how they put careers and ambitions behind to embrace a minimalist lifestyle with free time and space for self-discovery.

Among them are 31-year-old Alice Lu and 29-year-old Wei-Zhe Wu.

Lu was working in the communications and media department of a large IT company in Shanghai when she became ill.

“I had been working weekdays, weekends, days and nights for years, when I felt my body and mind collapse,” she explains.

She had to take time off to recover, and during that time she questioned her work-life balance. In the end, she decided not to return to her farm, but instead opened a noodle shop.

“The shop may not be much, but it is my own thing. Now I am the master of my own schedule and find that I finally have time to do anything.”

After the fall, Wu began to rethink his career.

“In my case it was my senior colleague who collapsed on the factory floor during a night inspection,” he says.

“Then I began to wonder if this would eventually be my fate.”

Commuters crowd a station platform during rush hour in Shanghai
Chinese travelers often face long work hours and a grueling schedule of six days a week [File: Aly Song/Reuters]

At the time, Wei-zhe Wu was working six days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. as a project manager at a chemical plant outside Jinan, a northeastern city halfway between Beijing and Shanghai.

“Even though I was working all the time, I realized that the dreams I had for my life could not be fulfilled by a job in a plant.”

He stands up and pulls aside the curtain to reveal the lights of the skyscrapers of Jinan’s city center shining at night.

“I could never afford to live there,” he growls.

So, he quit his job, moved back in with his parents and started doing some freelance work instead.

“My parents will probably push me back into the rat race, but for now I’m feeling free and healthy lying flat.”

Danger to Shea?

Although young Chinese may not want more free time, according to Ying Feng, “doing nothing” has become the biggest sin in Chinese society.

“From childhood we are taught that free time should be filled with productive and enriching activities.”

This is reflected in statements by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President Xi Jinping in which they call on young people to work hard, think big and stay true to Chinese socialism.

At a ceremony marking the centenary of the founding of the Communist Youth League of China, Xi declared, “Chinese youth are at the forefront of the path of innovation against the challenges facing our nation.

Tang Ping and Bai Lan’s embrace, as well as the Chinese leaders’ comments, come at a time when many crises are converging.

“Demographic and economic challenges loom on the Chinese horizon,” explains Yao-Yuan Ye, an associate professor of Chinese studies at the University of St. Thomas in the United States.

“Therefore it is important for the CCP that the youth in China work hard and contribute their best to the Chinese economy. Especially now that the high growth that defined the Chinese economic miracle in recent decades is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain in the future.

This places Tang Ping and Bai Lan in direct opposition to the CCP’s demands.

While Xi urges youth to think big and work hard to achieve their goals, Tang Ping revolves around lowering expectations and work intensity. And while Xi emphasizes uniting around the patriotic values ​​created by the CCP, Tang Ping individuals find peace within themselves.

As a result, spokespersons for the CCP and Chinese state media have called Tang Ping shameful and unpatriotic. Yu Minhong, the billionaire owner of a tutoring company, has gone so far as to call China’s future “a lie.”

Xi Jinping claps as he sits at a desk in the Great Hall of the People
The ‘flat lie’ is a potential threat to Xi Jinping’s efforts to get China to ‘think big’ and keep the country’s economy growing. [File: Florence Lo/Reuters]

However, attacks on “lying flat” are not limited to rhetoric. Last year, The New York Times reported that China’s internet regulator had ordered online platforms to severely restrict new posts on Tang Ping.

“I was a member of an online forum where we used to discuss ‘falling out,’” Lu recalls.

“We had reached 100,000 subscribers when suddenly we couldn’t post anything new on the site.”

Yao, the academic, says the party is unlikely to let the incident develop into a political movement that could threaten the dominance of the party or Xi, who is expected to win an unprecedented third term at the party congress later this year. .

“Given the Chinese authorities’ awareness of Tang Ping, any attempt to organize will be quashed.”

Still, if Tang Ping continues to spread and young Chinese choose a lifestyle that rejects hard work, it could pose a threat to the CCP’s ambitions, he added.

When asked if she sees Tang Ping developing as a threat to the CCP, Alice Lu takes a deep breath.

“Some things are better not discussed via WeChat.”

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