After decades of being well known for a culture of hard work and the ethos that it pays off in the long run, change has come knocking in China. “Can I do it tomorrow?” or “Can I not do it?” have become chosen responses for many professional youth in the country in a reaction to varying cultural, economic and social phenomena over the years.
To understand the context of the rise this new culture of slacking, we need to first take a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic affected a majority of the population. After the placement of strict restrictions, two years later, China’s economy has an unemployment rate of about 19.3% among the age group of 16 to 25. That translates to about 15 million unemployed young people, almost twice what it is in the United States.
In May 2022, China’s President Xi Jinping made a bold declaration, in what was supposed to be an inspiring speech, that “China’s hope lies in the youth”. He asked the youth of the country to instil ‘great ideals’ as a part of their personal goals.
But the working youth of China have a new stark different method of approach to their ‘goals’ now.
Within this community of dejected netizens rose the new slang and approach – bai lan (摆烂, meaning ‘let it rot’ in English). Cast down by the weight of an uncertain future and the consequences of a failing economy, bai lan is the attitude and lifestyle that the young crowd is opting for this year.
The slang bai lan finds its origins in NBA games, and means a premeditated loss in a game for a better draft pick. The phrase now sits on a pedestal in China’s slacker culture with the attitude defining a voluntary retreat from any goal that seemingly is more difficult to achieve.
The attitude of bai lan hasn’t been the first glimpse of slacker culture in China. In 2021, tang ping (lying flat, 躺平) gained popularity which meant aiming for a low desire life and rejecting the rat race entirely.
Tang ping was also a product of lifestyle and economic changes that came with Covid and its reflection upon the daily lives of Chinese youth. But the main discourse that comes with bai lan is that it has a much harsher effect and response system — where young people are deliberately letting a deteriorating situation just be; quite literally letting a worsening situation rot instead of making any effort to redress the balance.
According to Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, this new slacker phenomenon is fuelled by the set social immobility in current times. This social immobility rises from three main verticals of a daily man’s life — education, healthcare and housing. China has been under economic strain since 2010 and with the full impact of the pandemic, the country’s economic state has been hit severely. With this, tremors have also been felt through these three verticals, with a rise in property prices, healthcare costs as well as the cost of education. Inflation has been a major obstacle in a daily worker’s life, with basic needs simply seeming unachievable in their salary brackets.
Wu states how it leads to “very, very high anxiety levels” in the younger working generations, leading to the bottomless pit of feeling hopeless. Thus arises from the ashes of this burnt-out hope, bai lan. This exasperated slacking lies on the opposite end of the work culture which was implemented in China, till it was declared illegal in August 2021 by the Supreme People’s Court — 996, which meant working from 9 am to 9 pm for 6 days a week to push the economic growth of the country in a toxic and inhumane manner.
China might be witnessing a heightened version of slacker culture through younger Chinese generation right now, but the concept of slacker culture has been around for quite a while now and has had a universal effect.
Slacker culture made it to the limelight back in the early to the mid-20th century when Sudanese labourers retracted from work with lethargy in their work ethics to protest their powerlessness in the professional field. Thus the term ‘slacking’ came into being, associated with a step back in the official workspace. The ‘slacker culture’ is popularly associated with the youth of America in the 1990s as well. In current times, we see a global influence of this slacker culture in the form of quiet quitting and slow living, especially with Generation Z. These global trends have been often argued to have a healthy impact by setting boundaries between your professional capacity and personal life, but bai lan, on the other hand, has some worrisome consequences attached to it.
While some suggest that this culture and the group influenced by this culture will further bring down the economy, some side with the conclusion that it’s essential for China to now focus on people’s well-being than the ‘Chinese dream’ of unceasing profit. This distinct form of cynicism in the face of a failing economy and constant expectations is a form of protest from the core of the younger generation of China, which now just wants to ‘let it rot’ for once.