“Hard work is the path to happiness,” says Xi Jinping.
It’s one of those life-affirming, ultra-nationalistic pseudo-self help sound bytes we’ve come to expect from the president of the People’s Republic of China.
But the question is, whose happiness are we talking about here? The young professional working sixty-plus hours a week, or the employer raking in money on the back of this young professional’s hard work? He might be getting a salary. Maybe even a decent one. But ultimately, the ones who benefit most from the Chinese working class’s industry, initiative and enthusiasm, are the people they work for or the government. Increasingly, as the CCP buy up more and more controlling shares in domestic businesses, these two entities are becoming one and the same.
We all know hard work, drive, and commitment are considered integral to the CCP cause which, in a nutshell, has always been to make China stronger. Money is power, and nobody ever got rich being a slacker, right?
It’s not so clear-cut.
Increasing numbers of workers in China, especially the younger generation, are choosing to drop out of the rat race in order to pursue a low-demand, low-desire lifestyle know as tangping, or ‘lying flat,’ which focuses more on personal goals than simply being just another faceless cog in the machine.
The movement is said to have been started by a factory worker in Sichuan province named Luo Huazhong who quit his job and cycled to Tibet (a distance of over 2000 km) in search of enlightenment, wellness, and a better work/life balance. He took odd-jobs to pay his way, and called this low-maintenance, low-pressure existence ‘lying flat,’ and wrote a blog about it. Pretty soon he had a following, which grew exponentially and these days, he’s a kind of folk hero. Or anti-hero, depending how you look at it.
In many ways, ‘lying flat’ appears to have a lot in common with the similarly-themed ‘touching fish’ movement, which in itself was a reaction to the recently popularized 996 and 715 movements which both emphasise the importance of working ridiculously long hours.
‘Lying flat’ has even picked up some celebrity endorsements, like that of the novelist Liao Zenghu who likened it to a resistance movement against the “cycle of horror” generated by high-pressure schools and endless-hour jobs. “In today’s society,” he says, “Our every move is monitored and every action criticized. Is there any more rebellious act than to simply lie flat?”
These sentiments are echoed by Biao Xiang, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford, who told the New York Times, “People realise that material betterment is no longer the single most important source of meaning in life.”
The concept that there are many more important things in life than pursuing the almighty dollar (or yuan) isn’t exactly new. We can all wax lyrical about what these ‘more important’ things are, but most of us would agree that happiness (whatever that is), good mental and physical health, positive experiences, and enjoying one’s time would probably make it onto most lists, something our friend Luo Huazhong seems to have discovered on his own steam.
See, the most annoying thing about money is you can never have enough of it. The more you have, the more you want. The accumulation of wealth consumes you, and you just end up chasing shadows. It’s a battle you can never win. You work hard, then you die and someone else gets to spend it. That’s no fun.
The crucial thing to realize here is that ‘lying flat,’ or not being a productive member of society, isn’t exactly endorsed by the CCP because it defies their core ideology. Chinese citizens are supposed to serve China, not themselves. That kind of behaviour is generally considered subversive and the party acts fast to neutralize such perceived threats to the establishment. For example, a 9000-strong group on the social networking platform Douban devoted to lying flat was abruptly shut down by censors without explanation, and that probably wasn’t the only one.
Yes, apparently doing literally nothing is bordering on a criminal act in modern China. That alone is worthy of some serious thought. Chinese society thrives on competition. It is rife in schools, universities, workplaces, government and every facet of daily life. People push each other to extreme lengths. So what happens when people tune in and drop out?
The Southern Daily newspaper, a well-known mouthpiece of the CCP, reacted to this developing trend by publishing an editorial which read, in part, “Struggle is a kind of happiness. Choosing to ‘lie flat’ in the face of pressure is not only unjust but shameful.”
Reading that, one can’t help but get the impression that not only is the writer trying to simultaneously hijack and riff off Jinping’s famous quote, but is also using it to guilt people into succumbing to a life of hardship and struggle in order to serve the greater good. The subtext is clear; if you’re coping, you simply aren’t doing enough.
Now, why would they be encouraging the average Joe to work harder? You guessed it, because it benefits them. Not the person who wrote the editorial, they are just another cog, but the people he or she (I’d bet money it’s a ‘he’) works for, which happens to be the CCP.
The CCP’s approach to this whole social situation has been somewhat immature and heavy-handed, as is their approach to most social situations, it has to be said. Actively persecuting people who want to do their own thing and live life on their own terms will only drive the tangping movement underground, where it will probably flourish Fight Club-style. Making people work when they don’t want to is a risky strategy harking back to the labour camps of World War II, and only makes the CCP look like overbearing parents who don’t trust their offspring to make responsible decisions by themselves.
“Cut your hair, get off the couch, and get a damn job!”
Of course, the CCP are keen to push the narrative that working every possible hour is the right thing to do. But more and more people, especially the younger generation who seem to have caught a little of the ‘question everything’ philosophy from their western counterparts, are justifiably asking who is really benefiting from this work they are doing? And why shouldn’t they lie flat for a while?
After all, other people are doing it.