Professor Patricia Thornton on “Lying Flat” in China

Patricia M. Thornton is an associate professor in the Department of Politics (DPIR) and the University of Oxford China Centre, and Tutor in the Politics of China at Merton College. She is currently a Council Member of the British Association for Chinese Studies, having previously served as a member of the East and Inner Asia Council (EAIC, formerly CIAC-- China-Inner Asia Council) of the Association for Asian Studies. She served on the Executive Committee of The China Quarterly's editorial board for ten years, and as its Acting Editor in Chief in 2021. At the University of Oxford's DPIR, she has previously served as Chair of the Sub-Faculty of Politics and International Relations, and Chair of the PPE Committee, which oversees and manages the PPE degree programme at the University of Oxford.
Celine X. Wang '26 interviewed Dr. Patricia M. Thornton on December 1, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Patricia M. Thornton.

What is the “lying flat” phenomenon and what social context in China gave rise to it?

In order to really understand the “lying flat” movement in China, we will probably need to go back in time because the movement is an outgrowth of other existing conditions in the Chinese developmental experience. It also has international links to “quiet quitting” in the US, and other such anti-work movements globally. In the Chinese case, the movement finds its roots in discussions about excessive work demands in the high-tech industry amongst software developers (the so-called “996” movement). These discussions later also occurred among factory workers and migrant workers more generally. The central idea is that the enormous pressure that's been placed on the working classes in China has not resulted in wage growth and workers feeling measurable advances in their own standard of living. As a result, there's been discussion among people on social media about withdrawing from the working-class culture and scaling back one's expectations. This is very much in the style with what Diogenes—going all the way back to classical Greece-- preached in terms of turning away from consumerism and living a much simpler life with reduced demands and expectations.

Was the emergence of the “lying flat” movement something that has been manifesting for a while or something that was triggered by a specific incident or period of change? 

I would say that the one-child policy and the ramifications of that in terms of having a smaller generation to support the preceding one is related to the lack of social welfare benefits being widely spread across the country and across different sectors of the economy. Those pressures come to a head around the year 2000. Something I find really interesting is that one of the issues causing slowing Chinese growth, especially after 2008 or so, is total factor of productivity not keeping pace as it had been earlier in the reform era. There are many different causes for that and it’s a very complex phenomenon, but it is certainly related to access to education, the ability of businesses to innovate, and the ability of small and medium sized enterprises to become productive and maintain that productivity. Ultimately, what I think happened in the Chinese case is that we’re seeing a demographic trend. That’s the natural outgrowth of the Chinese Communist Party’s incredibly restrictive and repressive one-child policy combined with a set of circumstances that also arise from the CCP’s control over the economy and it’s favoring of state-owned enterprises. During the Jiang Zemin era and Deng Xiaoping eras, there was some notion that they would “grasp the large and release the small” by which they seemed to suggest that they would shift the economy into higher levels of privatization, but during the 2008 global financial slowdown, there was some rethinking about state-owned enterprises and their importance in the economy. This led to them beginning to cultivate state-owned enterprises as national champions. There’s a wonderful German political scientist named Sarah Eaton who’s written on this reconfiguration of state-owned enterprises as national champions. This was a very consequential decision in China because they were holding onto and cultivating large state-owned enterprises, which in general have not been the most productive and innovative sector of the Chinese economy. So we see this demographic trend, which is the result of repressive policies by the central government, meeting the effects of not very sound economic policies also by the party state in about 2008. Over the longer term, what ends up happening is that increasing pressure is being placed on the privately-owned sector to be innovative and to really carry the brunt of productivity growth and make up for the state subsidization of less productive and less efficient state-owned enterprises. So, when we look at the sociological movement of “lying flatism,” what we really see is that young people today in particular, are facing the enormous pressure of supporting the elder generation, and are not guaranteed a more satisfying, better life and a higher standard of living than their parents enjoyed. This is exacerbated by, for example, the property bubble, slow wage growth, and an economy that has a substantial drag being placed on it by large and inefficient state-owned enterprises.

Is there a particular demographic that is currently leading and participating in this movement? 

The “lying flat” movement appeared to really take off with urban-based high-tech engineers and software engineers in 2019. People working for high-tech firms are a major part of its constituency. However, a young vocational technical college dropout in his mid-20s named Luo Huazhong was the one who first started the movement. Luo was having a difficult time in finding stable employment, having moved in and out of a series of temporary roles, and ended up moving in with his parents. He picked up temporary work whenever he could get it, and ended up accepting the fact that he was going to earn very minimal wages. He was making about 200 yuan a month through various gigs, including a brief stint in which he played a corpse in a Chinese film. With that, he then posted a blog post titled “lying flat is justice,” arguing that in the economy that he was facing, the only way to ensure his own personal happiness was to get off the hamster wheel of continual professional development and competition for higher paying jobs, and to just accept minimal amounts of responsibility. What was really interesting was that his call for inaction resonated with so many in his generation who were also finding themselves in a similar position. This is counterintuitive because when we think about social movements, we tend to think about mobilizing people into action, but Luo was actually arguing for the reverse. The idea was that he was advocating for people to do as little as possible in order to preserve their own happiness.

Given that the productivity generated by 996 work hours and high-pressure work environments has been the norm, did the “lying flat” movement concern the government? What kinds of governmental responses were elicited?

Yes, shortly thereafter. When the 996 movement began in 2019, one of the most popular words on the Chinese internet was “involution.” This also fits in with the decline in total factor productivity, because what you're really seeing is that in the privately owned economy where productivity is much higher, businesses are being forced to not only be innovative and productive, but really also to serve as an engine moving all of Chinese economic development, compensating for the weight of the state-owned sector of the economy. In the relentless pursuit of innovation and productivity, the software firms were demanding that their workers spend inordinate, labor law-breaking hours at work from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. As a result, there was a series of shocking and tragic deaths of very young people from overwork. The irony of that happening in a so-called “workers’ state” really resonated with young people who began to withdraw as a form of resistance. By October 2021, President Xi Jinping acknowledged “lying flatism” as a problem in a speech which he emphasized that in China, a happy life is earned through hard work and through diligence. Xi Jinping also said in Qiushi, the party's flagship theory journal, that we need to reform the rigidity of the social ladder, guarantee people's social mobility, avoid involution and “lying flatism.” Following Xi Jinping’s speech in 2021, we also see the successive publication of three “Zhong Sheng” editorials railing against the lying flat movement in the People's Daily, the party’s official mouthpiece. One of these suggested that “lying flatism” is something that we see in other countries, but it is not a part of Chinese culture. The term was also used to mock the pandemic response of foreign countries as a form of “lying flatism.” The terms “lying flat” and “lying flatism” quickly became a part of official parlance and began to appear much more regularly in the official media, as a term of official reprobation and concern. Additionally, discussion groups on social media advocating “quiet quitting” and simpler lifestyles began to be censored and shuttered. Nevertheless, by about mid-2022, young people in China went a step farther, and began advocating not just “lying flat,” but even “letting it rot,” an even more pronounced form of withdrawal from the Chinese urban rat race. The term “let it rot” was originally used by Chinese NBA fans to describe a situation in which the scores between two teams is so large that the losing team completely gives up and throws the game. So, what these young Chinese people were suggesting was that they were willing to just literally throw the game, throw themselves out of public life and the high consumption lifestyle, and completely retreat into patterns of minimal work and temporary “gig economy”-type employment in order to barely scrape by.

Especially with governmental pressures you’ve mentioned, how do you think this movement will continue to develop? Do you see any possibility of the deeply rooted culture of overwork changing? 

In 2022, we had the rise of the “letting it rot” idea. Since that time, we have seen an uptick in official media expressing consternation about social withdrawal. We see a lot of this kind of discourse coming from members of the Politburo standing committee, and certainly in numerous People's Daily editorials. We know that during the pandemic, local officials who were not successfully implementing zero-COVID policies were being accused of “lying flatism.” These extraordinary exhortations to officials suspected of “lying flat” on the job were then combined into concerns about what the party calls bureaucratic “formalism,” by which it the party means that cadres are just “going through the motions,” doing the bare minimum to meet standards of compliance. I think that what we're seeing now is actually a shift in the structure of incentives within the Chinese political and labor systems, which have been changing over time. This is partly a result of the slowdown of Chinese economic growth, again, perhaps related to the steep decline in total factor productivity after about 2008. This predates Xi Jinping, but under Xi, what we're also witnessing a broad shift away from the so-called “performance legitimacy” that took hold in the early post-Mao years. In the early reform era under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, instead of the party legitimizing its claim to power by appealing to ideological rectitude, it began to adopt what social scientists refer to as “performance legitimacy,” meaning that the party's rightful claim to power was to be based on continued economic growth. But with the slowdown in growth rates and an aging population post-2008, we see a convergence of factors that indicate that China may be caught in the middle-income trap. Growth began to slow down. As a result, under Xi Jinping, the party is very openly attempting to shift away from so-called “performance legitimacy” because it can no longer return those continued high rates of economic growth on a year-by-year basis. What Xi and other leaders are attempting to do instead is to rely more heavily on moral exhortation to substitute for financial incentives. This can be seen in Xi’s campaigns against formalism, and the increasing pressures that are being placed on lower-level officials to engage in not just a normal roster of tasks, but also reach performance benchmarks to an extent that was previously unimaginable on their annual performance reviews. It strikes me that we are approaching a real transition point in terms of incentive structures and the legitimation strategies associated with the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping. As the party transitions away from performance legitimacy, it is now seeking new ways to legitimate its rule.

Celine X. Wang '26Student Journalist

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

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