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China’s Disillusioned Youth “Letting It Rot”

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A profound transformation has been unfolding within China’s young generation, a trend that markedly diverges from traditional expectations and societal norms. While America has been grappling with the concept of ‘Quiet Quitting,’ a similar but distinctly unique phenomenon has taken root in China, known colloquially as ‘Letting It Rot.’ This movement, fueled by disillusionment with a faltering economy and lackluster job opportunities, signifies a growing rebellion against the pathways once laid out by the older generations and the Chinese Communist Party.

At the heart of this movement is the story of individuals like Li Jiajia. After relocating from her hometown in southeastern China to Beijing, 24-year-old Li quickly found herself disillusioned with her job as a content creator at a technology startup. The absence of inspiring work and a shrinking market for high-paying tech jobs left her yearning for something more meaningful. In an interview, Li expressed her indifference towards climbing the corporate ladder, a sentiment that encapsulates the mindset of many young Chinese today. For her, the simple act of scratching lottery tickets has become a form of escapism, a momentary refuge that allows her to dream of a better life, potentially abroad. “I want to leave here and live the life I want,” Li said. “It won’t happen overnight, but for now, the thrill of scratching lottery tickets gives me a little break.”

This shift in attitude can be traced back to pivotal moments in China’s recent history, notably the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. For years following this event, the youth, who grew up during an era of rapid economic growth and rising affluence, diligently followed the path prescribed to them. This path involved securing admission to prestigious universities, working exhaustive hours in fast-growing companies, and adhering to conventional expectations regarding career and family life. These efforts were often rewarded with material success.

However, a confluence of factors, including stringent Covid controls and a grim employment outlook, has led many to question, if not outright reject, this once-coveted trajectory. The shift is not just about employment; it’s a deeper contemplation about life’s purpose and the role of authority. The southwestern city of Dali, known for its appeal to digital nomads and those seeking a new beginning, has become a beacon for such individuals. Young Chinese are increasingly turning to meditation, spirituality, and philosophical inquiries, embracing teachings from Eastern and Western thinkers alike.

This emerging ethos among China’s youth is encapsulated in trending social media discussions about temple visits and anxiety. Phrases like ‘lying flat’ and ‘letting it rot’ have gained traction, symbolizing a form of passive resistance and a redefinition of personal success and fulfillment. These terms reflect a growing sentiment that traditional paths to success are no longer viable or desirable. A survey by Tsingyan Group revealed that about 96% of nearly 6,000 respondents were aware of the ‘lying flat’ phenomenon, with the concept being more popular among those aged 26 to 40. “It’s a very passive form of resistance,” observed Silvia Lindtner, an ethnographer at the University of Michigan. “It’s definitely a very difficult moment, but it could also be seen as a hopeful moment where there is pressure, in some ways, on the leadership.”

The political landscape in China adds another layer to this complex scenario. The Communist Party, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has long been wary of the potential for unrest among the youth, as was vividly demonstrated in 1989. The party’s vision for young people, as articulated by Xi, is one of ambition and resilience, integral to building a “modernized socialist country.” However, this vision increasingly conflicts with the aspirations of the young generation, who are seeking personal fulfillment beyond the state’s ambit.

Comparatively, this youth disengagement in China bears similarities to global trends but is distinct in its Chinese characteristics. The unique political and economic context of China poses different challenges and opportunities for its youth compared to their Western counterparts. The future of China, as it navigates this evolving landscape of youth aspirations and attitudes, remains an open question with far-reaching implications.

In conclusion, China’s youth are at a critical crossroads, balancing the expectations of a state that seeks their active participation in ambitious national plans with their own quest for meaning and personal fulfillment in a rapidly changing society. The resolution of this tension will not only shape their individual futures but will also have a profound impact on the direction of China as a whole.

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