Chinese Millennials “Lie Flat” to Protest  Employee Exploitation and Never-Ending Rat Race
Will the work ever end?

Every day, a little girl in China wakes up at 6 AM, two hours before school to study for the SATs, practice for the LSAT’s, and read the encyclopedia to her tutor. The little girl is nine, and the tutor is me.

This is one of many examples of the harmful and overly competitive hustle culture that plagues Chinese youth. In hopes of combating 72-hour work-week expectations, the “lie flat movement”, also known as “Tang Ping”, was popularized among Chinese millennials. The movement stresses the importance of a work-life balance and rejects pro-capitalist agendas. However, the contentious nature of “lying down” results in varied interpretations vilifying Chinese millennials as good-for-nothing loafs or supporting the committed youths and their quiet rebellion against societal norms and deplorable working conditions.

Source: Weibo This viral photo circulated on Chinese social media platform, Weibo in 2021. The image shows a student studying and riding their bike sparking conversation about involution and China’s never-ending rat race. Photo by CTGN.com

The “9-9-6”

The “9-9-6” refers to the expected work schedule of a Chinese employee in any sector. The work-day starts at 9 am, ends at 9 pm, and is repeated six days of the week. Chinese President Xi Jinping has made statements dissenting those who “lie-flat” against the current work schedule, favoring the 12-hour workday despite China’s labor policy mandating no more than 8 hours of work a day. Of course, in pursuit of said job or any higher education, the 9-9-6 is elongated to account for studying and preparing for future endeavors.  

The competitive nature of life in China can be summed up through the buzzword: “Neijuan” or “involution”. Involution has come to explain the reality of increased competitiveness in the job and education markets to keep up with peers. This phenomenon is seen on a much smaller level in the United States. As more people obtain Bachelor’s degrees, there is more competition in the workforce and a push towards higher education to give people an “edge” against others. But what happens when everyone has an edge, and there is always the need to reach higher, work longer, and succeed in a space without limits? 

Source Illustration: Xiao Hua Yang Employees are exploited to the point of exhaustion and in extreme cases, “spontaneous occupational mortality”.

The increased competition has led to innumerable scandals and unjustifiable deaths in corporate China. Most recently, there have been two deaths at Pinduoduo, burgeoning widespread criticism of the intolerable working conditions and expectations placed upon Chinese employees. One of the deaths was a 23-year-old employee that collapsed from exhaustion while walking home from work past midnight. Less than two weeks later, another Pinduoduo employee died by suicide. In addition, a different employee was fired for posting a picture of an ambulance sent to retrieve a strained colleague who collapsed at work. This censorship of information along with the recent removal any content related to “lying flat” on Chinese social media points to larger censorship issues along with the exploitation of Chinese employees. 

The tragic occurrences mentioned follow one week at one company, and I cannot begin to imagine the sheer number of similar stories currently occurring throughout China. Employees are exploited to death, and their deaths are covered up with an explanation of “sudden occupational mortality”. While some stand by as their colleagues are killed by corporate greed, others challenge the norms by opting to change their lives by “lying flat”.   

Lying Flat”

Zhou Minxi, a writer for CGTN explains that “lying flat” is resistance from the 9-9-6 and a quiet rebellion from a “prevalent sense of being stuck in an ever so draining rat race where everyone loses.” The meaning is divided between literal and metaphorical distinctions that result in the same end goal — condemnation of Chinese hustle culture combined with an autonomy of one’s time. 

This bending of expectations among those “lying flat” reaches beyond the origins of stopping death by exhaustion and has encompassed a new kind of lifestyle rejecting other societal norms including, getting married and having children. While the youth protests, China grasps at straws to turn out a new generation of their workforce by shifting from a two-child to a three-child policy. 

For some, “lying flat” means watching video games all day as a protest against their country. While this anti-capitalist notion calls attention to poor working conditions, it also fuels stereotypes of the “lazy millennial”. 

Source Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen This popularized image portrays a literal demonstration of the “lie flat” movement against the pro-capitalist mindset in China.

However, freelance artist, Yubo Li believes that “lying flat” should not be equated with joblessness. Instead of feeding into previous generations’ preconceived notions of millennial lethargy, “lying flat” should encourage entrepreneurs, freelancers, and Chinese employees to re-think the societal work structure in favor of an accommodating schedule that works best for one’s needs. Yubo further states, “[that] lying flat doesn’t mean lying down all day or being jobless. It means going at your own pace and doing what you like”. 

Critiques

There are many critiques of the “lying flat” movement, stemming from within the Chinese government to everyday citizens. These pro-capitalist statements are formed to highlight the privilege of those who “lie-flat”, as they have access to generational wealth that allows them to view a 9-9 workday as optional.

An unnamed student in China voiced this opinion as he stated, “I don’t have the right to [lie flat] because my parents are aging. Who pays for their living and healthcare if I’m wasting my youth away”. This valid argument accentuates the fact that many of those who “lie-flat” are middle-class citizens living without the burden of keeping their families afloat. Furthermore, the phenomenon of “lying flat” needs to be implemented almost unanimously by blossoming generations to enact real societal change. If not, I’m afraid those trying to fix the current system are simply aiding in its perpetuation, as the lack of movement from the middle class leads to a widening income gap.

Standing Up Eventually

The truth of the matter is those who lie down will eventually stand back up. The hope is when they do, they will be rejuvenated and free from the societal pressures of the 12-hour workday. No one should be subjugated to sudden occupational fatality, because all that means is death was their body’s solution to the inescapable working conditions in which they “lived”. 

Source: Sixthtone The Chinese working-class struggles to find time to themselves within their 72 hour work week.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “[Suicide in China is] the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 34”. Students are killing themselves over the competition, while those fortunate enough to enter the workforce are keeling over at their desks from exhaustion. The “lying down” movement hopes to help the culture around mental health and the debilitating work hours to prove that a sustainable work-life balance is not only attainable, but beneficial to the Chinese populace. 

The 9-year-old little girl I tutor whispers about killing herself. She tells me about the dresses she hopes to buy in between her readings of the encyclopedia and murmurs about wanting to die. When I suggested a more relaxed schedule to her parents, I was given a leave of absence followed up with a text from the little girl. She said thank you and informed me of her other tutor, one ready to be there any moment in which I was not. One day, I hope she gains the courage to “lie flat”. She deserves to live in a world that will let her be her own person. Where she can be free of societal expectations and the insurmountable pressures placed on her to succeed in the rat race with no end in sight. 

I hope she may one day “lie flat”, even if only for a moment to take a breath and buy a dress or two. I am saddened to say she is not the only one, and generations of kids and adults alike are being subjected to maltreatment that ends in nothing but despair for everyone involved. Employees being worked to the point of spontaneous mortality is occurring not only in China but countries around the world including Japan, India, and many others. 

For their sakes, I believe in the “lying flat” movement for those who participate, stand up stronger than ever, no matter how the world sees them.