Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

‘Lying flat’ is sign of a burnout society

  • Called ‘tang ping’ in Chinese, it may be a natural defensive response to high societal expectations and surveillance. But taken to extremes, it can easily become pathological

One in four young Hongkongers from low-income families have apparently taken to “lying flat”, or doing the bare minimum to get by, if a June survey conducted by the Society for Community Organisation was correct.

But the phenomenon of the “great quit” was first noticed in mainland China. The Chinese Gen Z and the youngest millennials are finding solace in lying flat. Called “tang ping” in Chinese, it has been, in moderate doses, interpreted as taking things easy but more radically, as a direct challenge to President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” and societal expectations and norms.

Still, it’s a valid question: Why bother working yourself to the bone under the so-called 996 system under which employees are expected to work from 9am to 9pm, six days per week?

But perhaps it’s not confined to China. Across North America, you have something called “the great resignation” after the job market picked up and a large number of people leaving their jobs following the lifting of most Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. It is strangely in contrast to the fear and uncertainty of people facing job losses and wage cuts at the start of the pandemic.

But whatever you want to call it, many people of my generation, notably old friends from my Hong Kong secondary school and those from my Canadian and American university years, find it incomprehensible. Some of us put it down to laziness.

Certainly, when my friends and I first started seriously looking for work back in the 1980s and 1990s, we were happy to find one. We didn’t quit until there was a higher-paid job or one with a better career prospect. We didn’t expect job satisfaction because you weren’t supposed to like work; you just had to tough it out and suck it up. Your boss was terrible? Well, too bad, there was no such thing as workplace harassment or a hostile work environment. It was supposed to be tough!

But now, having a young daughter who has already decided to “quit” even though she hasn’t, properly speaking, started working in Canada makes me kind of understand a bit more about her generation. After all, do you really want to spend four years at university just to end up working as a barista at Starbucks? I am quite sure staff at my local Starbucks collectively have more university degrees than my entire extended family.

The Burnout Society

In any case, my “between jobs” daughter helps me better understand The Burnout Society, the 2015 book by Korean philosopher and cultural critic Han Byung-Chul, who in turn helps me understand my daughter better.

In capitalist-industrial society, workers were supposedly exploited by bosses who turned their labour into profitable commodities. In post-capitalist/post-industrialist society, Han argues, we exploit ourselves not just by exploiting our own labour, but by selling our own identities and quirks. This 24-7 enterprising self can be extremely exhausting and tiresome to inhabit after a while. In a sense, we prostitute our self or at least the persona of a self.

Classic examples? Social media personalities and online “influencers”; their specialities can be about make-up and cosmetics or LGBTQ2S+ gender politics and what not. My daughter and her friends all admire them, if not aspire to be like them.

“Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society,” Hon wrote. “Its inhabitants are no longer ‘obedience-subjects’ but ‘achievement-subjects’. They are entrepreneurs of themselves… The achievement-subject is faster and more productive than obedience-subject.”

Achievement and productivity become the be-all-and-end-all criteria of success. Such standards can be exhausting. But while “entrepreneurs of themselves” are all around us, or at least in social media, few of us actually succeed in being one. Most of us end up being “losers”. This sense of failure brings forth “auto-aggression”.

As a result, we are also prone to obsessions with health – veganism, for example - and depression, the feeling of being “cut off from all relation and attachment”, which is reinforced by social media and ephemeral “friends” made online. Medication is common. “Health is the new goddess,” Han wrote, but equated with well-being, it’s also ever elusive.

Is China a “burnout society”?

It strikes me that younger Chinese may actually be worse off in that they live in the worst of both worlds. Han is writing mostly about post-capitalist/post-industrial society in the West, which also includes the advanced economies of South Korea and Japan.

Pervasive social media in China share many of those characteristics Han describes. But Chinese society is also one under constant surveillance. Your activities ranging from online messaging to productivity, whether in factory, office, or at home, may be constantly evaluated. The state or the company may not be looking at you at all, but it could at any moment. You are like Jim Carrey in the Truman Show, only that you never know when an audience might show up.

So not working, “lying flat” or not doing anything may be the most effective and easiest way to secure and enjoy some personal space – or quality “me time”. Far being pathological, it’s a natural defensive response. Or not!

It can certainly become pathological. Japan has long had a whole population of hikikomori, people who are “pulling inward, being confined”. Lying flat can be liberating or become a self-imposed prison. At some point, everyone has to work to make a living.

As much as you can blame contemporary (Chinese) society, you can only blame it so much without taking some personal responsibility for doing nothing or only the bare minimum.