Communist China’s guiding ideology, epitomized first by “Mao Zedong Thought,” and now by “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” has always been predicated on the notion of unceasing struggle. “Marxism,” Chairman Mao maintained, “can develop only through struggle, and this is not only true of the past and the present, it is necessarily true of the future as well.” Class struggle, factional struggle, the struggle against foreign invaders, the struggle against obsolescent traditions, and the struggle for production, all these struggles were meant to pave the way for a new social system upon which the very salvation of the world was said to depend. These struggles were meant to be invigorating. In his 1940 treatise On New Democracy, Mao likened capitalism to a “dying person who is sinking fast, like the sun setting beyond the western hills,” an ideology “soon be relegated to the museum,” so different from Chinese scientific socialism, which was “full of youth and vitality, sweeping the world with the momentum of an avalanche and the force of a thunderbolt.” Mao’s mixed metaphors threatened to overpromise and underdeliver, however, and his ideological successor, Xi Jinping, in a Jan. 5, 2013 speech to the Central Committee, acknowledged that “the consolidation and development of the socialist system will require its own long period of history…. it will require the tireless struggle of generations, up to ten generations.”
Modern society, with its tendency toward presentism and instant gratification, is not particularly well-suited to an incessant struggle figuring to last an estimated 250 years. “The near future,” wrote the 20th-century Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila, “will probably bring extraordinary catastrophes, but what threatens the world most certainly is not the violence of ravenous crowds, but the weariness of boring masses…. The pessimists prophesy a future of rubble, but the optimistic prophets are even more horrifying when they proclaim the future city where baseness and boredom dwell, in intact beehives.” The “boring masses” in their urban “beehives” are seldom inclined to the sort of everlasting agonism envisioned by scientific socialists, and it was inevitable that the supposedly unstoppable force of the communist avalanche would be met by an immovable object, which is precisely what has come to pass in present-day China.
First came the so-called Sanhe Gods (三和大神), those predominately male migrant workers who ventured from the increasingly depopulated hinterlands to Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and other teeming metropolises in search of gainful employment, only to find themselves slaving away in Dickensian “shady factories.” Disenchanted with China’s “struggle culture” (奋斗文化), the ironically named Sanhe Gods adopted cynical mottos like “work one day and play for three” or “pick up your bucket and run,” in direct and provocative contrast to the motivational propaganda posters that line Chinese streets, bearing messages along the lines of “Struggle in youth, a brilliant future to come,” “Fight unrestrainedly, chase dreams,” and “If you don’t work hard, no-one can give you the life you want.” And then, in the spring of 2021, after more than a year of stifling coronavirus lockdowns, the insouciant credo of the working-class Sanhe Gods started to infect white-collar workers tired of hypercompetitive corporate “wolf culture” and the demands of the “996” lifestyle (working from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. six days a week).
It is impossible to conceive of anything more antithetical to communist China’s guiding ideology than the passive resistance inherent in tangping.
It began with a wave of memes washing over online platforms like Zhihu and Baidu, all promoting a novel ideology called tangping or “lying flat” (躺平). Cartoons of lazily recumbent individuals with captions like “You want me to get up? That won’t be possible in this lifetime” were widely shared alongside more philosophical musings. “I can be like Diogenes, who sleeps in his own barrel taking in the sun,” one anonymous individual wrote in a viral post entitled “Lying Flat Is Justice,” a sentiment echoed by other young professionals, evidently weary of Xi’s beloved “continued struggle,” who suggested that “only by lying flat can people become the yardstick of everything,” and that via “low material desire and low consumption” one can achieve a “slow-paced life” with “more time to be alone and think” and no need to “bear the pressure of comparing oneself with others.”
It is impossible to conceive of anything more antithetical to communist China’s guiding ideology than the passive resistance inherent in tangping. Wang Xingyu, an apparatchik at the China University of Labor Relations, sympathetically suggested that “attending to those ‘lying flat,’ and giving them the will to struggle, is a prime necessity for our country as it faces the task of transitioning development,” but official organs like the Nanfang Daily took a much harsher line, declaring that “in the face of pressure, choosing to ‘lie flat’ is not only unjust, but shameful. There is no value whatsoever in this poisonous chicken soup.” Tangping-themed merchandise was pulled from online vendors, the term was removed from WeChat searches, and discussion groups devoted to the phenomenon were swiftly suppressed. With Xi Jinping exhorting China’s youth to “constantly strive for the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a popular movement adopting the slogan “Don’t buy property; don’t buy a car; don’t get married; don’t have children; and don’t consume” presents a serious threat to the communist regime.
Lying-flat-ism’s distinctly anti-natal rhetoric is disturbing, all the more so in light of the recent news that China’s population has, for the first time since the Great Chinese Famine of 1959–1961, actually dropped, with 9.56 million people born in the country in 2022, as opposed to 10.41 million people perishing, a net decrease of by some 850,000 souls, according to Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics. This has prompted increased discussion of China’s ongoing “demographic crisis,” a wholly predictable consequence of the one-child policy that the Communist Party pursued between 1980 and 2015. By writing drastic population planning measures into the very constitution of the People’s Republic of China in 1982, and by demanding a total fertility rate of 1.0, the authorities upended thousands of years of Confucian “reproduction worship,” in which the propagation of the species was viewed as the “fountainhead of a flourishing and prosperous world.” Government interventionists thereby unwittingly unleashed a “silver tsunami” that figures to leave a “super-aged state” in its wake. It has been estimated that by 2050, roughly one-third of China’s population will be over the age of retirement, a state of affairs that will put considerable strain on China’s economy and social services. (READ MORE by Matthew Omolesky: China’s Three-Child Policy and the Philosophy of Reproduction)
Realizing the dire effects of its one-child policy, China has desperately been trying to pull out of its self-inflicted demographic nosedive, implementing a two-child limit in 2015 (a 2.1 total fertility rate being replacement level), a three-child limit in May 2021, and a removal of all limitations two months later. Yet the number of Chinese newborns continues to plummet all the while, no doubt exacerbated by years of lockdowns. Dramatic news of the 2022 population net decrease has prompted further soul-searching. Lu Jiehua, professor of demography at Peking University’s Institute of Sociology and Anthropology, has stated that:
The negative population growth is likely to become the new norm, requiring us to make full preparations and change our mindset and development mode for a relatively young society. The negative population growth will definitely impose a huge challenge to economic growth, especially to those heavily dependent on demographic dividends. To promote childbirths, China should build a pro-childbirth system covering not just childbirth policies, but also love marriages, employment, housing, medical care and elderly care. Only by building an all-around pro-humanity system and environment, can we help boost willingness among couples to have babies.
It is highly unlikely that China’s “perfect dictatorship,” with its omnipresent surveillance state, suffocating social credit system, and heavily circumscribed religious expression, can ever amount to anything resembling a “pro-humanity system,” and one suspects that “love marriages” and reasonable working hours — which are prevalent in the West but have hardly resulted in a demographic dividend — will not in and of themselves do much to reverse China’s population decline.
It is often said that demography is destiny, and nowhere is this more the case than in China. Between 1626 and 1646, as the Ming dynasty collapsed in the face of civil strife and the Manchu invasion, the population of China decreased by 11.4 percent, while the civil wars that wracked the Qing dynasty in the middle of the 19th century saw an even greater decline of 18.6 percent; The Golden Age of the High Qing, on the other hand, was marked by a rapidly increasing population, which was considered indisputable evidence of the bestowal of Tiānmìng or the Mandate of Heaven (天命). Mao’s Great Famine took as many as 55 million lives, leading to a loss of population in Anhui and Chongqing of 18 and 15 percent respectively, every bit as bad as the Ming and Qing catastrophes. Deng Xiaoping, speaking in the aftermath of the chairman’s death, could only conclude that Mao had thereby “committed many grave errors,” and that “much disgrace was brought upon the party, the country, the people.”
There may come a day when Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era is viewed similarly, but in the meantime, the regime will continue extolling the virtues of “continued struggle” in the interest of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” even as the country is beset by a demographic crisis unknown in modern history. “In the long run, we are going to see a China the world has never seen,” the sociologist Wang Feng has concluded. “It will no longer be the young, vibrant, growing population. We will start to appreciate China, in terms of its population, as an old and shrinking population.”
It was not so long ago, back on May 17, 2018, that an image of the U.S.-China trade negotiations went viral on platforms like Weibo. On the left, viewers were presented with the Chinese delegation, mostly young or middle-aged, and on the left were six American negotiators, all of them grey, balding, and hunched over their talking points. This image of (relatively) youthful Chinese politicians staring down the American gerontocracy was further contrasted with a famous photograph of the signing of the humiliating 1901 Boxer Protocol, when Western diplomats in their prime faced off against the superannuated Li Hongzhang and other mandarins who were so enfeebled that they had to be helped out of their chairs. “Over the past 100 years, American officials have gone from young to old, and Chinese officials have gone from old to young,” responded one Weibo user, which “has a lot to do with the current state of the two countries. America today is just as closed off as China was 100 years ago.” As China approaches “super-aged” status, its populace will have to wrestle with a national rejuvenation that has proved to be something of a mirage.
There remain those, like Yuan Xin of Nankai University’s Research Center for Strategic Studies on Aging and Development, who remain sanguine, given that by 2050 China still figures to have a population of 1.2 billion, with “600-650 million people in the age group of 16-59 years by the middle of this century, larger than all the labor force in developed countries combined. So, China can still enjoy demographic dividends.” Others, like Guillaume Marois, Stuart Gietel-Basten, and Wolfgang Lutz, authors of the 2021 study “China’s low fertility may not hinder future prosperity,” contend that pessimistic “prognostications are partly based on a simplistic and misleading concept of age dependency that assumes that everybody above age 65 is an economic burden and every adult below this age is an (equally) productive asset,” and that we must factor in the “massive improvement of human capital that China has experienced” in order to assess the country’s “demographic metabolism.” Yet even Marois et al. admit that “China will almost certainly have challenges associated with managing adjustments to population decline and increasing size of the older population, in particular, if fertility should have levels of 0.8 as currently observed in South Korea. China does not yet have adequate pension coverage, particularly in rural areas, and to expand social welfare systems will be more challenging.”
China has been in a race to improve its infrastructure, welfare systems, and overall human capital before the arrival of the “silver tsunami” — a race to grow rich before it grows old, in other words — but now UN experts are estimating that China’s population will shrink by some 109 million by 2050, more than triple the decline forecasted back in 2019. Wang Feng has postulated that “in less than eighty years China’s population size could be reduced by forty-five percent. It will be a China unrecognizable by the world then.” More ghost cities, more real estate bubbles, more societal dysfunction brought about by a massively imbalanced gender ratio — these will all represent significant challenges for the Chinese authorities going forward. The outgoing premier Li Keqiang was fond of insisting that “consumption is now the primary engine driving growth” in China, and that government stimulus is required to “to support the increase in people’s income through direct or relatively direct means in order to spur consumption and energize the market.” But a rapidly declining population will struggle to maintain prior levels of both production and consumption, and the evident weariness of the masses in these regards will not help matters much.
Those who have embraced lying-flat-ism often describe themselves as “leeks” or “leek people,” arguing that “leeks that lie down cannot be harvested so easily.” Tangping, according to one practitioner, is a “non-violent movement of non-cooperation by the leek people, and the most silent and helpless of actions.” Combined with the disruptions of the Sanhe Gods, the recent anti-lockdown protests, and the precipitously-declining birthrate, the lying flat movement is indicative of an all-consuming malaise pervasive in Chinese society, brought about by the unending struggle for existence required by scientific socialism. Communist China is not quite yet a “dying person who is sinking fast, like the sun setting beyond the western hills,” an experiment “soon be relegated to the museum,” but there is something deeply amiss there, as ostensibly helpless people make their displeasure felt in ways exceedingly subtle, undoubtedly effective, and ultimately profoundly destabilizing.
READ MORE by Matthew Omolesky: