China/June 27, 2023/By: Helen Gao/Source: https://foreignpolicy.com/
Young people have been trained into competition and hopelessness.
From 2003 to 2005, I was a student at rendafuzhong (the High School Affiliated to People’s University) a notoriously cutthroat institution in the Chinese capital. It was well before the term “lying flat” was coined to describe opting out of the unwinnable race of Chinese academic and career competition. But some of my classmates seemed to have already cottoned on to the reality of what lay ahead. At the time, they made little sense to me. Looking back, I see they were the first victims of what the school was doing to us—and what the state is doing to us now.
They were not many, though we all knew who they were. They concealed themselves in the back of the classroom, with Japanese manga or video-gaming manuals tucked inside textbooks as teachers held forth from the lecterns. They wore large headphones over their ears, eyes to the ceiling during study hours, while the rest of us hunched over our desks. After midterms and final exams, when rankings were posted at the entrance to the main school building, attracting large crowds of students, they drifted noiselessly by, not bothering to look up their places, because they already knew what they were.
Teachers shook their heads with dismay and summoned parents. “Your child has potential!” said the teachers, pointing out that they’d already made it into the famously selective school. The parents, no less exasperated, were at a loss, not knowing what had happened to their once obedient, self-driven kids. The rest of us looked on with incomprehension. You’ve made it this far, I remember thinking to myself about my slacker classmates. Why give up now?
The slackers were not troublemakers by any standard. But the teachers’ worries were not unwarranted: In an environment organized around and sustained by competition, their stubborn insistence on loafing was an act of subversion. They refused to follow the rule of hard work that bound the rest of us and strive for the goal of acing tests we were taught to pursue at an early age.
After graduating from high school, most of those students headed to second- or third-tier colleges outside of the capital. When reunions came around, they did not show up. If they did, however, they might discover that they were no longer the outliers they once were.
In recent years, an increasing number of Chinese of my generation and younger have decided to “lie flat,” a phrase invented in 2021 that refers to the growing defeatism among 20- and 30-something Chinese in response to out-of-control competition. It is cited by Western media and Chinese state newspapers alike as a cause of major social problems like record low marriage and fertility rates.
Among the lamentations about out-of-reach real estate prices and grueling hours at tech behemoths by the frazzled millennials around me, some piece of the puzzle is missing. The answer can be found in those lonely figures in the background of our high school years.
The slackers almost always kept to themselves. They did not make fun of the teachers, who were universally respected for their expertise in teaching to the test. Nor did they roll their eyes at the rest of us eager strivers, perhaps because not too long ago they were just like us. Having given up on the academic race, they did not direct their time and energy elsewhere—as their Western counterparts might do by starting a band or playing sports—except to video games. Most of the time, they slouched from classroom to dining hall and back, a remote look on their faces.
Then, as now, young people’s slide into fatalism and passivity is not merely a symptom of overheated competition or a response to the diminishing returns yielded by increased efforts. Rather, it’s a reaction to the profound ways the intense competition that encompassed every aspect of our childhood and adolescence affected us. The hierarchical struggles that occupied us—designed, orchestrated, and monitored by the state—increasingly occupy us today. The state makes us its product by stunting our sense of agency and self-worth, while leaving us isolated from our peers.
As my generation’s once-bright prospects fade, the truth comes out: We thought we had left school behind when we graduated. It turns out school has followed us into adulthood and makes us its pupils still.
The main image I have of my high school is the whiteboard where our class rankings were posted. Academic competition ruled our lives and our psyches, but it was never a competition on our terms. The state curriculum drove into us early on the understanding that not all subjects were equal. Math and science were the rungs on the ladders leading to the city’s most prestigious secondary schools and the nation’s best universities. As a consequence, endless drills on those subjects consumed the majority of our time.
Chinese, history, and government, on the other hand, required little more than a dutiful willingness to memorize and regurgitate what the textbooks had to offer. And what they had to offer—stories of revolutionary heroes and paeans to the party’s greatness—was so tedious that it almost seemed intended to dull any interests students might hold for those subjects. Any attempts to explore and come to one’s own understanding on history and politics could be costly: Aside from the risks such behaviors carried in a tightly controlled information environment, there was the simple fact that they would take precious time away from the all-important task of preparing for the national college entrance exam.
When I read news about state crackdowns on the private sector, I feel a sense of déjà vu. The industries under assault—private tutoring, property, tech, and finance—employed the country’s best and brightest. Both lucrative and prestigious, they were once testaments to the ambition and accomplishments of the Chinese middle class. That has become a problem for a state that wants people to put national interests above those of the individual. One unstated goal of the crackdowns is to divert talent away from those industries to those it considers strategically important, such as information technology and advanced manufacturing. The tactics used, from issuing decrees to meddling with incentives, are familiar to veterans of the Chinese education system: We see the blanket bans that once kept sensitive topics out of our textbooks now annihilating entire sectors like private tutoring, as well as the lopsided motivation structure that steered us away from building our own academic interests now on display in moves like cutting the salaries of investment bankers.
The state is likely to prevail, because we had no choice but to learn to play by its rules. But by forcing us to chase its goals and visions, the state never allowed us the chance to develop and act on those of our own. Without such experience, is it any wonder that many of us simply let ourselves fall out of the race when we stumble or are out of breath, having, like my defeatist-minded high school classmates, never cultivated the agency and skills that might enable us to reassess and pivot?
The truth has come to us only in hindsight, perhaps inevitably, after we are out of the competition; we were too distracted to recognize it while we still had our eyes on the prize. China’s state-sponsored competition carries a level of intensity that can mask a great deal about its nature. Our tunnel vision blinded us not just to our own potential, but the damage to our relationship to our peers.
In a state education system centered entirely on testing and ranking, we were on our own, and our peers were rivals pitted against us in a zero-sum competition. We might have understood this on an intuitive level, but it rarely rose to the surface of our consciousnesses, partly because it was so entrenched in our everyday lives as we grew up. From as early as many of us could remember, we were prodded, goaded, and shamed by our parents and teachers into working harder, with our higher-scoring peers as examples. Soon, without noticing, we began to do the same to ourselves and to look down on those beneath us.
As the stakes of the competition grew higher, the gaps in academic performance started to weigh on relationships. Friendships broke, and budding romances soured as a result. This toll was taken as a matter of course, the unfortunate if inevitable consequence of the only type of competition we knew. Yet nothing felt quite so lonely as discovering, for instance, that the friend who sang karaoke with you shoulder to shoulder yesterday stopped talking to you today after the exam scores were posted.
A childhood and adolescence spent overworking ourselves to outcompete our peers leaves us with the weary sense in adulthood that we are ineluctably alone as we make our way in society. The test scores we strove to earn became salary figures and apartment sizes in the real world. Unlike schools that heaped public praise on top students, the state, worried about triggering social discontent, now goes out of its way to check excessive displays of economic success. But the structure of competition it imposes that keeps each of us in our lanes remains firmly in place.
What academic drills and tests once did to isolate us from our peers, the state now accomplishes with harsh restrictions on culture and civil society. It wants to make sure we are productive socialist workers instead of frittering time and energy away on, say, making independent films or discovering feminism. Deprived of the space to meet like-minded friends or soulmates, we take a minute from the grinding work one day to look around, only to realize that we recognize little in one another, except bone-deep exhaustion.
It is a bleak realization—but also clarifying. It is as though we are finally seeing through the eyes of my high school slacker classmates, looking at our former selves as they might have looked at us then: as the hollow characters in those computer RPGs they played, busy beating enemies and accumulating XP on a plot already laid out by someone else.
Where does this insight lead us? Does the clarity help us come to terms with ourselves? Does it offer the peace of mind with which we might enjoy the life of “lying flat”? Does it allow us to mentally smash the dreaded score rankings board, once and for all?
If only things were that easy, as my high school classmates might point out. Just as they had had no respite from the parade of teachers, school officials, and public speeches urging them to stop dawdling and get down to work, the state has made clear to us through rhetoric and policy that taking it easy is not an option. It has vowed repeatedly that China’s development must avoid the trap of “welfarism” that it believes makes people lazy.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when Western countries were handing out checks to tide its citizens over through the initial economic shock, China kept its purse strings tight despite mass unemployment among young workers. It has even appropriated the phrase “lying flat” for its own purpose, to both justify government overreach (“China cannot ‘lie flat’ in COVID control”) and condemn youth complacency (“Refuse ‘lying flat’! To be young means to struggle”).
The government criticisms may be unfair, but they still gnaw at us. In a society that has long considered working hard a moral imperative, slackers do not glory in slacking off. What we feel, instead, is captured by a meme that has gone viral on the Chinese internet in recent weeks. It resurrects a famous short story from 1919 about Kong Yiji, a failed scholar who lives in poverty. In the tavern Kong frequents, he makes himself a laughingstock by wearing a dirty academic gown and speaking in literary jargon.
The character has been borrowed by fresh Chinese college graduates to complain about the difficulty of landing jobs that befit their education status in an anemic economy. But with his perpetual air of impotence and lonely existence, Kong Yiji might as well be a metaphor for us reluctant slackers: He is the product of a system that has served him poorly. Toward that system he is bitter, angry, and unable to break free.