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Deciphering the Internet Buzzwords of Chinese Youth

Yige Xu | East Asia Fellow

Image credit: Ars Electronica via Flickr.

Young Chinese netizens have perfected the art of subverting language to voice political opinions. Since the Great Firewall’s establishment in 2000, wordplay, euphemisms and catchphrases have been adopted to creatively circumvent internet censors, providing a window into urban youth attitudes within a society in flux. But following the harsh COVID-19 restrictions and shrinking economic opportunities of recent years, popular internet buzzwords have taken a darker turn. The online language of Chinese youth captures a pervasive mood of disillusionment, which could have potential implications for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) political legitimacy.

Expectations versus reality

Millennials and Generation Z in urban China have grown up in the tailwinds of the country’s rapid economic development, embracing education as the key to secure employment and a better life. There was precedent to this belief — economic reforms since 1978 had dramatically improved the lives of their parents’ generation. The centrality of education to social mobility and economic growth has also been touted by the Chinese government, with the number of students enrolled in higher education  increasing from 22 million in 1990 to 383 million in 2021.

But these expectations for a better life have largely failed to match disappointing realities. Even before COVID-19, urban youth have grappled with China’s ‘996’ work culture, where shifts from 9am to 9pm, six days a week have become the norm in some industries. But despite increasingly demanding work expectations, young people are still finding themselves worse off than their parents’ generation.

These concerns have been encapsulated by the term neijuan, popularly translated as ‘involution’ but literally meaning ‘internal curling’. Emerging on the Chinese social media platform Weibo in 2020, nejiuan refers to the internal depletion caused by a lifetime of participating in China’s intensely competitive education system and labour market, capturing the mood of a generation of urban youth who find themselves burnt out under constant pressure while failing to make meaningful progress up the social ladder.

Disillusionment spreads: ‘lying flat’ and ‘letting it rot’

In June 2023, youth unemployment reached a record high of 21.3 per cent, sharply contrasting the 4.9 per cent overall unemployment rate of 2022. But by considering those who are not actively looking for work, estimates placed the percentage of urban 16–24 year olds not in employment, education or training to be as high as 46.5 per cent in August 2023.

This staggering number can, in part, be explained by the ‘full-time children’ phenomenon — an internet trend which describes young graduates turning away from the competitive labour market to become domestic helpers for their families. According to estimates, there could be up to 16 million ‘full-time children’ in China.

‘Full-time children’ is a manifestation of a wider trend — to tang ping, or ‘lie flat’ — actively choosing to opt out of the rat-race in favour of a simpler life. Tang ping is seen as the opposite of neijuan, as Huang Ping, professor at East China Normal University, explains: “In a relatively good social environment, people may feel involuted, but at least they’re trying. If it’s worse, people will tang ping.”

Unlike the ‘quiet quitters’ in the West, Chinese youth who ‘lie flat’ have extremely limited economic alternatives. COVID-19 regulatory crackdowns on key industries employing young graduates have further restricted economic opportunities. The tech sector, previously the primary source for high-paying jobs, has suffered state crackdowns since late 2020, leading to unprecedented downsizing and reduced hiring for fresh graduates. Tthe after-school tutoring industry also suffered severe government restrictions in 2021, affecting more than 250,000 full-time and contract employees.

COVID-19 has exposed the structural faults within China’s economy and governance, causing a generation of frustrated youth to give up on societal career expectations. This mood of disillusionment is reflected online by a new, darker term — bai lan, or ‘let it rot’. While to ‘lie flat’ is to strive for nothing more than what is essential, the millions of young Chinese ‘letting it rot’ have completely surrendered any hope for a better future, and actively embraced a deteriorating situation. 

What could this mean for the CCP?

As the CCP’s legitimacy rests on ensuring economic growth and job stability, mass unemployment may erode public trust in the Party. China’s urban youth are already deeply disillusioned with official narratives. Xi’s May 2022 proclamation, that ‘China’s hope lies in the youth’, sharply contrasts with the realities of youth unemployment, disaffection and despair encapsulated within online discourse.

In its extreme form, this sentiment has manifested in political action. College students and youth were key participants in the November 2022 White Paper protests, where tens of thousands of citizens gathered in cities and 75 university campuses around China to voice discontent over the CCP’s extreme COVID-19 restrictions, as well as deeper disaffections with growing repression, crackdowns and economic stagnation. The protestors not only demanded an end to COVID-19 lockdowns, but also for Xi to ‘step down’ — a major rejection of Xi’s self-construction as a ‘great leader’.

Other young people have dealt with their frustrations by participating in the runxue (‘run philosophy’) trend, prompting their emigration to other countries to escape political restrictions and in search for better economic opportunities.

Others are psychologically or spiritually opting out. Rejecting the CCP’s narrative for the future, young people have started to refer to themselves bleakly as the ‘last generation’. A survey of more than 20,000 young people found that two-thirds did not want to have children — a stark rejection of the government’s three-child policy which aims to reverse the aging population.

The internet buzzwords of Chinese youth reflect broader social emotions in the post-COVID-19 era, marked by widespread discontent. While it is difficult to predict how the mass disillusionment of urban youth might impact Xi’s rule and China’s future, it surely does not bode well for the CCP’s political legitimacy.

Yige Xu is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She studies the Bachelor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, where she majors in International Relations and Chinese.


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