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China youth reject hustle culture; face unemployment, economic uncertainty


Crystal Guo says she typically works for about six months to a year before quitting.

It’s what the 30-year-old describes as her new lifestyle of “intermittent working and persistent lying flat.” 

Young people in China are growing disillusioned and frustrated with work and life, and some are now turning their backs on a crushing hustle culture as they face challenges ranging from rising unemployment to layoffs and economic uncertainty.

The competition is so intense that some say they’ve given up on their dreams and aspirations.

The concept of “tang ping” — which means “lying flat” in Chinese — became a popularized term in China last year. It was one of the top 10 internet buzzwords in China in 2021, according to the National Language Resource Monitoring and Research Center. 

“The popularity of this word reflects the stress and disappointment young people feel,” said Jia Miao, an assistant professor of sociology from New York University Shanghai.

“Tang ping is the rejection of overworking, where you let things be and do the bare minimum,” said Miao.

In March this year, another Chinese term emerged online. Reflecting an attitude toward life, the term “bai lan” is translated to mean “let it rot.” Posts related to the topic have garnered more than 91 million views on Chinese social media giant Weibo as of Wednesday. 

The popularity of this word reflects the stress and disappointment young people feel.

Jia Miao

Assistant professor of sociology, NYU Shanghai. 

“Bai lan is where young people refuse to put further efforts [in life] because they just can’t see any hope in doing so,” Miao added. 

The term first gained popularity among players on popular video games like “League of Legends,” according to Miao. It was initially used to describe players who retreat or give up during a difficult battle to take up “easier tasks” instead. 

Miao added: “This group of people are active Internet users, so this word became popular later even among non-players.”

Why the 'quiet quitting' trend went viral

While the anti-hustle mentality of tang ping (lie flat) seems to have some parallels to the so-called quiet quitting movement that gained popularity on TikTok last month, bai lan (let it rot) seems to be a more negative term, Miao pointed out, saying that it refers to a state of deterioration where “one gives up any possibility of hope.”

What is the source of this disillusionment among young people in China? CNBC Make It finds out. 

Unemployment and uncertainties

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Escapism?

Speaking to CNBC in Mandarin, Guo said that she was laid off twice in less than a year, something she described as “quite incredulous.” 

She was first retrenched in July last year, while working at a private company providing after-school education. Guo was laid off when China cracked down on the education system and implemented the “double reduction” policy, which aimed to ease the burden of excessive off-campus tutoring for students. 

After traveling for half a year around China using her severance package, Guo returned home to Shenzhen and found a job at a real estate company in February this year.  

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Much to her horror, her entire department was laid off shortly after. 

“I was definitely affected… The job market situation this year has been quite dire. When I tried to find another job, it was during the time when the tech industry was also reporting layoffs,” Guo said. 

“I was looking for a job fervently, but I couldn’t find one that was suitable.” 

Lying flat became a form of “escape from reality” for Guo, she said. After failing to secure another job, she used her free time to take up part-time jobs to cover her daily expenses, or pursue other hobbies. 

“I admit, it could be me escaping from the reality of having to find a job.” 

Out-of-reach aspirations 

To me, it’s refusing to be kidnapped by societal expectations… houses are so expensive, there is no point thinking about [purchasing one] because it’ll give me a lot of stress.

The perceived lack of social mobility, coupled with rising costs of living, is driving disillusioned young people to “turn their backs” on such expectations, she added. 

“So many people are choosing to avoid thinking of it. They refuse to participate in competition, they refuse to compete for money, an apartment or marriage,” she added. 

That’s the mindset of 31-year-old Qiu Xiaotian, who said he identifies with the idea of “lying flat.” He defines it as doing only what is necessary to survive, and “not striving for things,” according to CNBC’s translation of his Mandarin comments.

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“To me, it’s refusing to be kidnapped by societal expectations. For example, houses are so expensive, there is no point thinking about it because it’ll give me a lot of stress,” said Qiu, who is working as a videographer.

“Even though I am married, I don’t wish to have kids either. Why should I when having one would cause my quality of life to drop drastically? I can’t give my child a good life.”

Anti-hustle

For Guo, who turned 30 this year, societal expectations that one should have the ability to own a home, and boast of a good job and family, are felt most when she compares herself to her peers. 

“There is that expectation to have a house, a good career and a family — of which I have none.” 

But the concept of lying flat, or not having a full-time job in her case, has given her time to think about what she values in life, Guo said. 

When I was 22, I worried if I would have achieved nothing at 30. But now at 30, I accept being ordinary. I don’t think it’s as important to be rich, or be able to afford a house anymore.

Crystal Guo

Postgraduate student

“When I was 22, I worried if I would have achieved nothing at 30. But now at 30, I accept being ordinary. I don’t think it’s as important to be rich, or be able to afford a house anymore.”

She added: “When I was working, my life would revolve around work and I felt like I missed out on time to myself.” 

Backlash and criticism

A growing sense of disillusionment is now driving young Chinese to “turn their backs” on society’s expectations to succeed, said Jia Miao from NYU Shanghai.

Baona | E+ | Getty Images

However, Guo insisted that choosing to lie flat doesn’t mean she’s given up on herself. 

“Even though it looks like I’m doing nothing for 6 months, I am working hard on myself. ‘Tang ping’ gives me breathing space to reflect on my career and future, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.” 

Her time away from work has also inspired her to pursue a Master’s degree in psychology.

“I have set goals for myself when I am not working, so ‘tang ping’ doesn’t feel like a waste.”

Despite the popularity of buzzwords like tang ping and bai lan, Guo said it does not necessarily translate to a complete lack of action among young people.

People who lie flat like me, it’s not like they are not contributing [to their companies], they just lack motivation to provide extra value.

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