- As protests against zero-COVID measures erupted in China, some felt it marked a turning point.
- Some commentators saw it as the end of “lying flat,” the Chinese youth version of quietly quitting.
- But two experts told insiders that resignation and inaction won’t just go away.
When anti-government protests erupted in China over Thanksgiving weekend, it looked like the stirrings of a revolution.
Youngsters flocked to campuses and onto the streets of major cities, carrying blank slips of paper, a new symbol of dissent. Some commentators wondered if the movement would follow in the direction of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, where leaderless groups of people took to the streets despite the mainland Chinese government. Others questioned whether the protests meant China’s Gen-Z would no longer “lie flat” – a reference to disaffected youth resorting to doing the bare minimum to get by in life.
But ten days later, the cries of “we won’t be slaves, we are citizens” have faded to a buzz of discontent on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, where posts expressing discontent are swiftly censored. Chinese President Xi Jinping has reversed parts of the zero-COVID policy that confined millions of people to their homes and subjected them to mass COVID-19 testing, and the streets are heavily patrolled by police.
Two Singapore-based professors who study China said that although the protests show discontent is rising to the breaking point, the majority of Chinese youth will not risk life and limb to gain freedom.
Chinese youth are likely to continue lying flat
The youth who protested would likely go along with the idea of ”letting it rot,” said Alfred Wu, a China expert at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
“If you put yourself in the shoes of Chinese university students, they have been stuck at home for three years taking online courses. They didn’t have the opportunity to live, study and enjoy any part of college life like the students before them,” Wu told Insider. The term “let it rot” is used to describe a Chinese phenomenon where frustration with the hamster wheel has fueled an intense hatred for the system.
However, the protests do not mark a turning point in society, Wu said, because holding protests in China remains very dangerous.
“The reason people protest is because the root cause of their dissatisfaction has not been addressed,” Wu said. “But what you’re going to see more of is people ‘laying flat’ in silent protest.”
Xi’s move to ease some COVID restrictions “will certainly ease frustration among China’s youth,” but it’s not enough to address youth sentiment overall, said Chong Ja Ian, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.
It is “still unlikely that the eased restrictions will alleviate the broader sense of hopelessness that many young people in the PRC seem to be feeling,” Chong told Insider.
He added that the anger expressed in these protests differs from the resignation, dejection and passivity associated with “lying flat”.
“I think the protests reflect frustration at zero-COVID, disconnected from the structural constraints and obstacles like lack of work-life balance, limited perspectives and exhaustion that have led to ‘laying flat’,” said Chong.
China’s youth still live in a pressure-cooker economy
Chong told Insider that there may be more youth-led movements in the future, but that the trigger is often “hard to predict.”
And while the protests made international headlines, they weren’t massive: “The people that you see involved in the protests are actually a small group,” Wu said.
Wu said whether China’s youth will protest again depends on whether there is another opportunity in the coming years. Youth unemployment is very high in some cities, he said, and Xi’s insistence on the zero-COVID strategy has only fueled growing frustration. “We are the last generation” — a now-censored social media hashtag used by Chinese youth to rage about lockdowns — is a good example of this effervescent frustration, Wu said.
Chong added that the country’s youth find themselves in a pressure cooker of high youth unemployment, poor work-life balance, high cost of living and a general sense of government control. And the economic slowdown from the lockdowns has only made the road harder for the average Chinese youth.
However, maintaining momentum is also a difficult task.
“Although this current round of protests seems to have some coordination as people take leads from different cities in their protests, there doesn’t seem to be much organization despite claims by the PRC authorities of ‘enemy forces,'” Chong said.
“Of course, an incident or an overreaction by the authorities could prolong and strengthen opposition to the party-state, as could a continuation of strict social controls,” Chong added. “Otherwise the protests could dissolve – in even more resignation.”