In the past few months, discontent among Chinese youth is increasingly bursting to the surface, both online and on campuses, in defiance of state censorship and repression. A widespread proliferation of anti-capitalist memes and open dissent against the regime online speak to a general undercurrent of rage and resentment, which has also seen university students launching struggles across two provinces.
The supposedly all-powerful Chinese Communist Party state machinery is finding it increasingly difficult to keep a lid on the outcry against the existing system.
Labourer, involution, Chives, and Lie Flat
The above string of words may seem like gibberish to readers unfamiliar with the Chinese internet. They all refer to memes that tie into a common sense of hopelessness about the future, experienced by many Chinese youths.
The restrictive nature of the Chinese state means that the youth’s grievances are often expressed online in coded language through popular memes, showing the creativity of the youth in raising their frustrations.
Notably, many of these memes have gained tremendous popularity only in the last year or so, despite China touting its relative success in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Laborer” or “Workingman” (打工人) is a self-deprecating meme used by low-level employees, usually young workers, who understand their lot in life as exploitable fodder for the bosses.
Unlike those who embrace the gospel of hard work and “upward mobility” peddled by the corporations and the CCP, Laborers understand they will not be rewarded with prosperity after years of slaving away for their bosses.
A widespread Laborer meme satirically states, “as long as the Laborer works hard, the boss will surely earn a better life.” Notably, this term originated in Hong Kong, but is now often used by most Chinese young workers and student workers to describe themselves and their conditions.
“Involution” (内卷) is another meme term, through which the youth express their pessimism with the current system. This originally obscure sociological jargon, coined by American academic Clifford Geertz, is now used by millions of Chinese internet users to describe a sense of stagnation and decline in their lives.
Some use it to express their pessimism about progress for their country moving forward. Others use it to describe how the workers in China are being endlessly pitted against one another by the bosses and the system. There is a wide variety of uses for the meme, but all point to the general theme of seeing no hope for the future under the present system.
Chinese youngsters also compare themselves to “Chives” （韭菜）, to express how they are merely raw materials to be reaped repeatedly by the capitalists and the bureaucrats.
Another aspect of this meme is the deep frustration with the restrictive nature of Chinese society, where no one has any right to express their discontent openly, and it feels like people are reduced to mute vegetables at the disposal of the ruling class.
Finally, and most significantly, this year in April a new meme – “Lie Flat” (躺平) – has burst onto the scene.
We can trace the origins of Lie Flat back to a single post on a Baidu Tieba (Chinese online discussion platform) forum post, where a user called “Well-meaning Traveller” (好心的旅行家) espoused their disgust with the present society, which constantly demands people pursue material wealth and live up to unreasonable standards. According to the user, the solution is to refuse to join this rat race, “lie flat”, and live a simple life.
The post instantly exploded in popularity and inspired many to create pictures or videos that express a variation of the same idea: that of refusing to play by the rules of the existing society. Although the original post only criticises the world for being too commercialistic in the abstract, subsequent iterations of “Lie Flat” take on a much more explicitly anti-capitalist tone.
An example of this is the Douyin (Tik Tok in China) music video created by user “wufu6666”, which contains the following lyrics:
“Who says Lie Flat will destroy our future?
“Let them (landlords) raise the rent as they wish,
“But if I don’t like it, I’ll Lie Flat!
“The wheel of life and death turns, but its always 996 (anyway),
“So I shall be the champion of laziness.
“(They say) Lying down means you’re waiting for death!
“(I say) If I don’t Lie Flat I’ll be worked to death!
“If you don’t Lie Flat quick enough,
“Then you’ll be chives for Capital…”
These lines express Chinese youths’ fury against a system that places them under the whims of the bosses and landlords, while forcing them to toil endlessly on a 996 (9am-9pm, six days a week) schedule.
While the above song and original iteration of the meme apparently express a demoralised and apathetic sentiment that people should rebel by ‘doing nothing’, others are using Lie Flat as a means to bypass omnipresent censorship in China, and actively advocate for change.
Defying the state
In addition to the proliferation of these subtle forms of protest, there have also been a few instances of the youth directly criticising the state online. In China, where all social media accounts are linked to one’s real identity and thus tracked by the state, this is extraordinary. To openly criticise the state outside of very limited boundaries is thus a very dangerous undertaking, but it is also one that young Chinese people are increasingly unafraid of pursuing.
As the Lie Flat meme became a focal point for millions of youths on the internet, the CCP state initially opted to censor it. Many online forums or chat groups related to the meme on Douban or Baidu Tieba were shut down. Even chat groups with names that suggest the motion of lying flat, such as “Crouching Dragon” (卧龙吧), were closed.
Unfortunately for the CCP, the popularity of Lie Flat made it impossible to remove it from the internet altogether. As a result, they tried to openly criticise it as a social trend, which only instigated a backlash from the youth.
The Communist Youth League’s Central Weibo account fired the first shot by posting a composite photo of young soldiers and medical workers, overlaid with the slogan “the youth of today has never chosen to lie flat!” A caption that celebrated those “hard-working young patriots” in the military, in the tech sector and in the medical field.
The response was instant and colossal, with hundreds of comments directly criticising the tone-deaf state media, each getting thousands of “likes” within minutes.
The regime even attacked the meme in the CCP’s English language daily, Global Times, “China is at one of the most important stages of its long road to national rejuvenation. Young people are the hope of this country, and neither their personal situation nor the situation of this country will allow them to ‘collectively lie flat’”.
The CCP regime and the bourgeoisie talk of the need for a massive collective effort – with the youth at the forefront – to achieve the “rejuvenation” of the nation. But the youth are increasingly clear that it is not the nation as a whole, but only the capitalist class that is becoming enriched off of the sweated labour of the working class.
Another case concerns the recent announcement that the state will permit couples to have three children as a means to alleviate the aging population. Given its prior, brutal enforcement of the one-child policy upon the masses, the CCP state sought to present this new measure as a “big gift” to the Chinese people.
In preparation for the occasion, state media network Xinhua prepared an online poll to be launched alongside the official announcement of the three-child policy, where readers were asked whether they would be willing to have more children.
The result within the first few hours showed that over 93 percent of respondents “absolutely are not considering having children.” This embarrassing outcome forced Xinhua to quickly remove the poll, merely hours after it was published.
This result reflects the fact that child rearing in China is increasingly expensive, which discourages most young couples from having children. It also reflects the fact that internet users are furious at the state for being manifestly out of touch.
One young tech worker told the South China Morning Post, “The rich and the authorities monopolise most of the resources, and more and more working-class like us have to work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, but still can’t afford a down payment [on a flat] or even the cost of having a child.”
There are other examples of the CCP facing significant backlash online in recent times, each more ferocious than the last.
What this shows is that, despite all the bluff and bluster around China’s economy recovering relatively well from the pandemic, the younger generation do not feel any hint of relief. This frustration is now coming to the surface, in the first instance via the internet.
Struggles In the Streets?
Owing to the powerful surveillance network, the majority of discontent among youths has been expressed online, which has become a developing trend in the past two years and shows no sign of abating. However, the mounting rage and disaffection is increasingly spilling over into the real world.
For example, at the start of June, students across multiple universities around Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces launched ferocious protests against the governments’ plan to relegate the status of universities to that of “vocational schools”, thus devaluing the hard earned-degrees of many pupils.
A degree from a vocational school rather than a university reduces the chances of a graduate finding a high-quality job, as there is strong stigma against vocational school graduates as being poor students, and therefore worthy only of poor jobs.
This gives further lie to the regime’s claim of China being a socialist country, as a genuine socialist society would guarantee high-quality education and jobs for all.
The suddenness of these protests initially forced the school authorities to agree to “pause” rather than abandon the planned measures.
However, the students demanded that, unless the plans were withdrawn, they would continue the protests and rallies. This prompted the state to launch brutal crackdowns, with special police deployments.
At the same time, the state also began slandering the protests as orchestrated by foreign agents, despite the fact that many of the student protestors considered themselves to be staunch supporters of the regime (some professed to supporting the crackdown on the Hong Kong protests in 2019).
The state also circulated a lie about how the students of Nanjing Normal University’s Zhongbei College took their principal hostage, a lie that has been repeated by foreign media such as the BBC.
At the time of writing, information about the status of these protests is scarce. We cannot predict the outcome of these struggles, but we can be sure that the state’s panicky and brutal treatment of these students, who are trying to protect their own futures, will doubtlessly educate a whole new layer of youths in China on the nature of the regime that rules over them.
Notably, it was only last September that students across China spontaneously launched protests against their schools attempts to profiteer off of them during lockdown measures. As class struggle intensifies in Chinese society, there will be more young militants stepping into the streets to confront their oppressors.
No future for the next generation
The fact that the scale of discontent among China’s youths, either online or offline, has expanded to such a scale that it can no longer be swept under the rug by censorship, shows the level of crisis that underpins Chinese capitalism.
This is ultimately because, despite all of the CCP’s talk of “socialism,” the very laws of capitalism in China have led to a crisis-ridden society that produces the same problems for youth around the world.
In a number of now-removed articles, China’s bourgeois liberal publication, Caixin, attempted to assess the situation with a degree of objectivity. The articles cited the rapidly rising housing costs, the decline of quality new jobs, the growing inability for highly educated graduates to find work that corresponds to their skills, and the growing influence of monopolistic companies over society as the main factors that contributed to a growing sense of dread amongst China’s youths.
They also correctly point out that this is by no means a problem unique to China, but one that is now plaguing the entire world.
As with many serious bourgeois strategists, Caixin’s class position blinds it from drawing the necessary conclusions: the capitalist system itself is the root cause of the problem.
One of its commentaries places hope in the CCP state to ultimately rectify these problems by intervening to alleviate the burden on youths:
“Fortunately, our country is not like Japan or South Korea which are dominated by monopolistic corporations. China can use a strong “visible hand” (of the state) to mend the divisions in society. Fairness and justice has been in our blood for a long time. In recent years, the government has been hitting out at these idle internet giants (in China) through antitrust measures, and the fight has not yet ended.”
However, the fact is that as long as capitalism remains, no amount of state intervention will stop these problems from emerging. Only by establishing a democratically planned economy and workers’ democracy can these social ills be effectively dealt with.
But many young people in China have moved beyond the belief that the CCP regime will fix these problems. They increasingly see the regime itself as part of the problem.
Polarisation of society and the state’s conundrum
The radicalisation of China’s youth is a function of the general polarisation of society as it descends into greater crisis. As the IMT has explained, particularly in our world perspectives, while there is a polarisation toward the left and to the right, the general tendency will be towards a growing anti-capitalist mood within the working class, starting with the youth.
Within China this process heralds increasing clashes between the working class and the CCP dictatorship. The regime understands this fact and as such, it is attempting to rest on repression and censorship on the one hand, and the dissemination of chauvinistic, nationalistic sentiments on the other to shore up its support.
This in large part explains the CCP’s recent chauvinist domestic policies and sabre-rattling abroad. A phenomenon known as “Wolf Warriors” (战狼), where state officials or media personalities take posture dramatically and confrontationally against criticisms from abroad, are also intended to inspire nationalist sentiments among the masses.
Over time this has created a right-wing internet movement known as Little Pinks (小粉红) who fervently (and voluntarily) defend the CCP regime and attack (and report) any dissenters in the Chinese internet space to the authorities.
Unfortunately for the CCP, their attempts to balance among different layers of the masses is getting out of control. A growing layer of Little Pinks, steeped in the nationalist poison that the state has fed them, is now turning against their masters for not being nationalistic enough! Indeed, some so-called “Wolf Warriors” have found themselves being openly criticised from the right.
For instance, Hu Xijin (胡锡进) , the swaggering editor of the state media network, Global Times, is known for calling on the CCP to expand its nuclear arsenal to place a check on the US.
Hu is considered one of the original Wolf Warriors and a rabid muckraker of the CCP regime with a large following.
Yet on 1 May this year, he admonished a separate state media outlet for posting an egregious meme making fun of COVID-19 deaths in India as “inappropriate”. This earned him blowback from many of his erstwhile supporters, who saw nothing wrong with the post.
Another example concerns one of the current speakers of Foreign Ministry Zhao Lijian, another top Wolf Warrior in the ranks of the regime who achieved celebrity status online for his belligerent, nationalistic defense of China against foreign media.
Nonetheless, he was openly chastised by many of his own followers for posting a token congratulatory message to Chinese Muslims during Ramadan. For his fervently chauvinistic followers, it was unacceptable for Zhao “to show partiality” to “foreign” religion of any kind, as this is “anti-China.”
These high-profile cases of the rabid dogs turning on their Wolf masters reflect the increasingly precarious position of the CCP in Chinese society.
On the one hand, we see an unabating rise of social discontent and class struggle, which takes its aim at the state and the existing system. On the other hand, we see that the rightward sentiments that the state have cultivated are not only insufficient to drown out the discontent against the CCP, but are also getting out of the regime’s control.
The regime will have to rely on direct repression to maintain its position, while the ground continues to shift beneath it.
Big events ahead
Marxists understand that the youth is both the barometer of the mood in society and often the first to move into struggle. The fact that the Chinese youths have been expressing their frustration in increasingly open ways shows that there is an even deeper reserve of anger among the Chinese general masses.
For now the CCP under Xi Jinping is putting on a brave face, even publishing a pompous manifesto entitled “China Has Not Let Socialism Down” in the run up to the 100th anniversary of its founding.
But in fact, millions of workers and youth have been let down by the capitalist system that the CCP oversees, and it will only be a matter of time before they hold the ruling class to account. At the moment, the seething discontent is largely expressing itself on the only platform available to the youth under conditions of the CCP’s dictatorship: on the internet and social media. But it is only a matter of time before the youth grow bold enough to express themselves on the streets and in the schools, universities, factories and offices.