let me help you understand lying flat

Let Me Help You Understand Lying Flat

I am writing this because I saw a blogger sharing his thoughts on “Lying Flat”. I understand that this blogger came from a relatively poor background and through hard work, a frugal lifestyle and luck, I would say he is comfortably financially independent. After all, he managed to get from rag to riches by working hard. Why wouldn’t it be the same for others? He did not understand why are these young Chinese doing this to themselves and their country, and not working hard to secure their future.

What if I told you that there is no future?

A portion of the Chinese population do not see themselves ever getting out of the hole, climbing up 2 steps and then slipping back two steps or more. It is easy to comment while living in Singapore, where housing and the cost of living are still ok for most (for now). Perhaps you might not agree with how the Chinese are reacting to their circumstances, but I hope this post can help you understand why are people “Lying Flat”.

What Is Lying Flat?

lying down on stairs

Photo by JOYUMA on Unsplash 

Lying flat is a direct translation from a Chinese term, tang ping (躺平). From a since-deleted April 2021 post on Baidu Tieba, a Chinese online forum, a user shares the reasons why he chooses to lie flat.

I haven’t been working for two years, I have just been hanging around and I don’t see anything wrong with this. Pressure mainly comes from comparisons with your peers and the values of the older generation. These pressures keep popping up…But, we don’t have to abide by these (norms). I can live like Diogenes and sleep inside a wooden bucket, enjoying sunshine. I can live like Heraclitus in a cave, thinking about the “logos.” Since this land has never had a school of thought that upholds human subjectivity, I can develop one on my own. Lying down is my philosophical movement. Only through lying flat can humans become the measure of all things.

The user spends only 200 CNY (S$40) a month by eating two minimalistic meals a day. He makes enough to sustain his lifestyle via ad-hoc jobs including acting as a dead body where he just lay flat. He spends his free time swimming and reading books, refusing to participate in the rat race. His post soon gained popularity as it resonated with many of his fellow citizens. A discussion group with thousands of users was then created to share ideas and memes about lying flat, prioritizing happiness over mindless consumption. However, it was quickly shut down by the Chinese Government, together with hashtags and online chatter on lying flat. This movement directly contradicts the “Chinese Dream”

This movement is China’s counterpart to America’s great resignation. They are both a form of protest against the exploitation of employees for the benefit of business owners.

The Unfair Chinese Dream

The movement resonated with many locals because of the working environment in China. It is a race to the bottom where everything else is sacrificed for work. If you don’t work harder than the person next to you, you will be losing out.

In 2013, Chinese President Xi encouraged “young people to dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfil the dreams and contribute to the revitalization of the nation.”

The youths are expected to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their country. The problem is that the Chinese youths are not able to see the comparative returns despite their hard work. They have grown up with a cut-throat education system, bad career prospects combines with a rising cost of living and house prices. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, except for the train that will eventually crush them.

How widespread is the lying flat phenomenon? In a survey by Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, 61% of 241,000 respondents said that they want to take up the lying flat lifestyle. They are unable to fight the system directly yet they do not want to sacrifice themselves for the Chinese dream. The only option in their opinion is to lie flat.

“You can’t stand up, but you don’t want to kneel down. Then you can only lie flat,” one Weibo user commented

The 36-year one-child policy has contributed to China’s ageing population. The babies born during this period are now 6 – 42 years old. The adults in this group are now expected to work longer hours for the “revitalization of the nation” and have more children from the reversal of policy by the Chinese government to support the ageing demographic, twice as big as the working population.

Unaffordable Housing And Diminishing Purchasing Power

Although the average income has increased over the years, it has not kept up with the cost of living.

Singapore is used as a comparison so we can better appreciate the differences in the cost of living compared to our wages.

China Singapore
GDP Per Capita US$10,000 US$60,000
Median Annual Wage US$5,000 US$41,000
Annual Spending
(rent excluded)
Shanghai (Tier 1) – US$1,900

Shenzhen (Tier 2) – US$1,800

Suzhou (Tier 3) – US$1,500

US$16,000

The median annual income of the Chinese is about 32,000 CNY (S$6,800). The Chinese premier said in 2020 that 600 million people (40% of China) have a 12,000 CNY (S$2,500) annual income. This amount is not enough to pay for rent in a medium city. Although their wage to annual spending ratios is similar to Singaporeans, their property prices are not affordable for the average citizen.

Property prices are skyrocketing. For those that can afford housing, a large part of their income is channelled to their mortgage as property is seen as a safe investment. With the “pending” defaults of property developers like Evergrande, property investments, which make up a large proportion of their assets, are in jeopardy.

In the table figures above, we are looking at averages. But with a population of over 1.4 billion, outliers can make up a huge absolute amount. These outliers are not able to have excess money to try to improve their standard of living, spending most of it.

Being A “Chive”

Chives is a type of vegetable that is easy to grow and can be harvested multiple times without replanting. With sufficient nutrients and water, chives can be harvested 4 – 5 times every year. You just have to leave the roots and then some and the chives will grow back again.

Cutting the chive (割韭菜) is a term used by the Chinese to describe individuals that are exploited. It can refer to many circumstances ranging from financial scams and irrational consumers to employees. The individuals get exploited but they are not totally destroyed, allowing them to grow back and be “harvest-ready”, to be exploited again and again.

Although the 996 culture has started in the tech sector, it has been spreading to other sectors. A part of the population is getting more and more self-aware that they are chives. Their bosses and the nation is progressing financially built on their hard work but they do not see an equivalent reward in comparison. They get paid enough to survive but never enough to improve their standard of living.

In response, when one chooses to lie flat, they will not be caught by the “blade” when the elites of society come to harvest their crops. They are fed up with others enjoying their fruits of labour while they continue working hard towards the next harvest.

The recent pandemic has also increased the pressure on the workers. With many losing their jobs, the recent graduates are now competing with the graduates of 2020 and 2021 who are still unemployed. Even graduates from top universities have been unemployed for over a year.

Lying Flat Is The Solution For Some

If the cost of living relative to wages is still acceptable, people might feel disgruntled and complain but at least some progress can be seen via increased savings or quality of life, so they will just push on. However, when one works hard but sees themselves “running on the spot”, it is really hard to motivate yourself to even try.

Since there is no future, people are choosing to not follow the social norms of getting married, having kids or chasing brands and prestige. This will allow them to enjoy the moment with a minimalistic lifestyle. Although you can earn more with “996”, the pay increment might not be enough to cover the increase in expenses so it can be more “worth it” to lie flat. Even if one gets a higher “net value” from working 996, the additional amount might be too small to make a difference so why not just lie flat.

Lying Flat 996
Salary Low Relatively higher
Meals Simple homemade meals Eating out
Fashion Plain clothes Presentable clothes for all occasions
Transport Public Transport or walk Owning a car
Property Live in parent’s house or rent in lower-tier cities Strive to own property or rent in major city
Entertainment Free or cheap forms of entertainment (reading, exercise, watching shows) Drinking, movies, karaoke, travelling
Retail Therapy No stress Spend to relieve stress

I exaggerate the differences but the main point is that you can live a frugal and simple lifestyle as a “flat lier” and you don’t have to spend on unnecessary things to keep up with peers as compared to a “go-getter”.

Potential Problems For The Country

old asians playing chess

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

I won’t deny that lying flat will bring problems to the country. Lying flat will inevitably bring down the overall productivity of the country. On top of that, by lying flat, these individuals are not planning for retirement, which creates stress on the country if they have to take care of them. China has a similar system to Singapore’s CPF. It is estimated that their country’s pension fund might be bankrupt by 2035 due to a declining workforce which is contributed by the one-child policy.

These “flat liers” will have limited contributions to their retirement pension accounts. By living from month to month, it is also doubtful that they will have much retirement savings if any at all. Without a retirement income or savings, they might need to rely on social programs paid for by taxpayers, placing further stress on the workforce.

We cannot expect every citizen to be the perfect worker. As long as the numbers remain manageable for the country, it should not be too big an issue. If the working and living conditions do not improve, I foresee that more people will join the movement.

Will The Lying Flat Movement Spread To Singapore?

Singapore has one of the highest costs of living in the world. However, we have relatively affordable housing and social programs that help things to become more affordable.

Cost Of Living In Singapore

Although it might take 2 to 3 decades to fully pay off a flat, it is still in sight and we can pay using our forced savings in our CPF OA.

There are also public rental flats if we are unable to afford our own property. The number of Malay households in rental flats doubled in 2020, a huge jump compared to other races. The government noticed this issue so they have a program to help these households eventually own their own property. Owning their own property brings stability to their lives without needing to think about rent and having a roof over their head. If this trend of preferring rental over ownership increases without control, we might see more people unable to own a property, focusing on short-term goals instead of long-term ones. If they are unable to take care of themselves after retirement, it will place additional stress on the working force via higher taxes.

The government also attempts to help cover the cost of living increases via GST and CDC vouchers. You can fill in a questionnaire on this government website to check what programs you are eligible for.

Work Culture In Singapore

The work culture in Singapore isn’t the best. When working long hours is equated to working hard, efficient workers are punished. It becomes a contest with your boss and peers to see who leaves later. Instead of going home to rest, we drag our working hours to look like we are hard at work. We also have companies that tie attendance with incentives as it is an easy but inaccurate way to see who is the most “hardworking”.

We have a saying in mandarin, “无惊无险, 又到五点” (we safely got to 5 PM again). Employees are just looking forward to lunchtime and getting off work, there is little motivation to put additional effort into their work. We are afraid of any unforeseen work that appears that might push back our knock-off time.

Self-Improvement Attitudes In Singapore

We also require incentives (PIC, SG Digital, Skill Future) to improve ourselves. There is little self-motivation and huge reliance on the government to fund these programs. If the government doesn’t step in, many are reluctant to spend their own dollars to do self-improvement.

At our current state, I wouldn’t say we would lie flat in Singapore as things are still relatively affordable and there is a commitment to family and reluctance to downgrade one’s current lifestyle.

In the coming decades, when our population gets even older and prices get higher, if the working population feels that the typical retirement is not in sight, we might have our own form of lying flat. There is a rise of movements of the working class against the 1% all around the world like the great resignation and the amazon union movement. When the wealth gap gets bigger, we might see cracks start to form.

TL, DR

We should try to understand why the Chinese youths are lying flat. It is easy to judge others when we are in a position of comfort. Lying flat is one of the few things that an individual can control as there are many uncontrollable factors in life. With the rising cost of living and no hope of retiring comfortably, one chooses to just live a simple life and reject being a “chive” that gets harvested multiple times without rewards while benefiting the 1%. There will be potential problems that come with this movement. While this movement is unlikely to spread in Singapore now, if the cost of living gets out of control, a similar trend might develop if the government is unable to deal with it.

Icons made by Freepik from Flaticon

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5 thoughts on “Let Me Help You Understand Lying Flat”

  1. Great article, touching on many relevant and key points. To me this movement is a “message”. And your article is the message. It seeks to challenge the Establishment, System, exploitation, while hinting the haplessness felt and at the same time not seeing the light. Not sure if SG is really much better. I wouldn’t want to start all over again today if I may summarize. Apologies for my English. Cheers.

    1. Hi YJ,
      Thank you for commenting. I hope to let people see the perspective of people who choose this lifestyle. The kids nowadays will not only have to survive the competitive environment in school and work, but they will also have to work against the worsening natural environment and climate. If you say that Singapore isn’t really much better, I don’t think you appreciate how bad they have it in China or even the US. Relatively speaking, I would say that we in Singapore are doing ok.
      Your English is fine. You don’t have to apologise.

      1. Totally agree on China and US. And yes it could be relatively better here in many aspects. Not disagreeing on any of your premises.

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