The “lying flat” or tang ping movement is a phenomenon that emerged in China in 2021. It describes the generation born in the late 1990s and 2000s who have decided “not to strive for their futures” because of the lack of social mobility and economic stagnation.
They do not want to follow the values of hard work, home ownership, marriage, or living standards sought after by past generations.
Ever since the “lying flat” movement resonated with younger netizens, the Chinese government has sought to put the fire out by restoring the “good old values” of past generations.
Still, the question is why the movement has spread among Chinese youth despite 40 years of economic prosperity. The reality is that Chinese GDP growth has steadily declined since 2010.
GDP growth had already dropped from 10.6% to 6% before the Covid-19 pandemic. Now an economic downturn – due to worldwide inflation from the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and economic sanctions – threatens to end the golden period of Chinese prosperity.
Rising tension between Washington and Beijing, numerous lockdowns due to China’s “zero-Covid” policy, a property crisis, and declining employment for unskilled workers have cast further doubts on the future of the world’s second-largest economy.
Active internet censorship and other measures restricting freedom of speech mean that tang ping is a silent revolution representing the powerlessness of young people who know they will never achieve the same living standards as their parents or grandparents.
Although it is just a silent revolution, the Chinese Communist Party is cautious about its potential impact on society. State-own media, such as Xinhua and other platforms, have been utilized by the CCP to condemn the movement.
The Party also has demographic grounds on which to be concerned.
China moved from the one-child policy to a “two-children policy” in 2015, encouraging people to have as many babies as they can, although the official stance is three, to maintain the health of the pension system and labor force.
Those “lying flat” instead of having babies increase official worries about the five years-long fall in China’s birth rate.
The movement could also scare off foreign investors and lower labor productivity. Economic development is vital for the CCP to justify its strict authoritarian rule, so a significant depreciation in human capital is unlikely to be tolerated.
Perhaps most importantly, the notion of “lying flat” signifies to the Chinese people, the CCP and the world that the country is declining under President Xi Jinping’s rule. It implies that Xi is incapable of motivating younger people to “strive” for the nation.
Officials could attribute the “lying flat” phenomenon to economic changes, such as rising house prices and disruptions to global supply chains, but Xi’s third-term ambitions make him unlikely to tolerate voices of dissent.
That could explain why the CCP wants to stop it from spreading.
But the movement is unlikely to challenge the CCP’s rule – especially in the short run. The lack of desire among those “lying flat” to officially organize themselves and change the status quo renders the phenomenon a passive force that helps young people accept life’s harsh realities.
Yet the generation is similar to the NEETS – Not in Education, Employment, or Training – who emerged in Japan in the early 2000s. They were young Japanese people who stayed at home, relied on their parents for basic needs and did not want to join the labor force.
The “lying flat” and “NEET” movements both reflect the increasing challenges that younger people face in Japan and China.
Beijing depends on economic development to justify its authoritarian rule, but it remains unclear how the CCP and Xi will confront this youth-inspired counterculture.
Unless they believe suppression is the only option, one way for the Party and its President to maintain political legitimacy would be to provide new social and economic opportunities for younger generations.
Yao-Yuan Yeh is Fayez Sarofim-Cullen Trust for Higher Education endowed chair in international studies, chair of the International Studies & Modern Languages Department, and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of ChinaFactor.