Washington, DC – Early in May 2022, China’s President Xi Jinping urged China’s youth to establish “great ideals” and incorporate their personal goals into the “bigger picture” of the Chinese nation and people. “China’s hope lies in youth,” he had said. But on China’s internet, many young people say their “ideals” or “goals” cannot be met and claim they have given up on trying (The Guardian, 26 May 2022). Frustrated by the mounting uncertainty and lack of economic opportunities, youths in China have resorted to using a new buzzword, ‘bai lan’ (let it rot), capturing their current attitude towards life.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP, 5 October 2022) recently featured the story of Yan Jie, a 28 year-old youth working in an IT company, who had posted a note outside his bedroom in suburban Shanghai that read, “I am bailan-ing. Leave me alone.” Yan was mocking himself, saying he was lazy, by using a new buzz phrase, ‘bai lan,’ which has become increasingly popular among young Chinese people. The term refers to an attitude of giving up on a situation beyond the control of one’s life and comes from a sentiment that Chinese youths are powerless to combat forces making social expectations unattainable. President Xi Jinping must be aware of the discontent brewing among Chinese youth. The question is will he do something?
SCMP quotes Yan, who works for an IT company, as saying, “When I am given an assignment at work, I try to avoid it. If I am forced to do the work, I will do it, but inadequately.” He says, “When my parents ask me about when I will get married, I tell them I will leave it to happenstance.” This reflects a state of mind that proposes spending less energy trying to fix an impossible situation, and it is best to “let it rot,” essentially giving up on striving for high or any achievement in Chinese society. The term has evolved from another phrase, “tang ping” (lying flat), which entered the Chinese lexicon earlier this year and means “just doing enough to get by .”Bai Lan has become so mainstream that it is now a common phrase used by the Chinese government at all levels, ranging from local cadres to the top authorities.
‘Lying flat’ is a neutral expression, but the phrase ‘let it rot’ shows how people have completely given up and are willing to accept an even worse situation, which suggests a negative connotation. The origins of the word ‘bai lan’ come from basketball, one of China’s most popular sports, and describes situations when players or teams would normally stop trying if they were getting beaten badly to speed up the inevitable defeat. It has since gained popularity among disheartened youths. On Weibo, bai lan-related topics have generated hundreds of millions of reads and discussions since March 2022. In recent months, this phrase has gained popularity as severe competition and high social expectations prompted many young Chinese to give up on hard work. Chinese State media have taken note of this trend. One recent article asked, “Why modern young Chinese like to ‘bai lan’?” The article assumes that “This is a result of negative auto-suggestion, repeatedly telling oneself I cannot make it… And this kind of mentality often leads people to adopt the ‘bai lan’ attitude.” The reality, however, is that for this generation of young Chinese, this attitude of letting things rot is caused by a lack of social mobility and increased uncertainty. In today’s China, the sense of hopelessness among the young is further exacerbated by shrinking economic opportunities. In the past few months, while hundreds of millions of Chinese people were confined to their homes due to Covid lockdowns, the world’s second-largest economy also struggled to boost growth. More than 18 percent of young Chinese people aged between 16 and 24 were jobless in April – the highest since the official record began. “Hard to find a job after graduation this year? Fine, I’ll just bai lan – stay at home and watch TV all day,” wrote one netizen who struggled to find work, despite China’s top leader urging young people to fight for the future.
A search of the term ‘bai lan’ on Xiaohongshu, China’s Instagram-like service, returned about 2.3 million results. On Bilibili, a YouTube-like company, videos with “let it rot” in the title are among the most popular videos on the service. While experts argue that this mindset is not necessarily universal among young Chinese people, it is widespread enough to indicate a real sense of pessimism and disillusionment among China’s young generation. They pointed out that it is a noteworthy phenomenon that could negatively impact an already slowing economy. The youth unemployment rate in China was 19.9 percent in July 2022, which, combined with unaffordable homes, makes the thought of kick-starting an active professional life seem unattainable. For people in their mid-20s and 30s, the expectation of caring for their senior parents while raising young children is now an immense burden amid rising living costs across the board. This is a consequence of greater competition resulting from economic advancement in the past few decades. The pessimistic attitude amongst Chinese youths could threaten the already slowing economy.
China’s youths today are a frustrated lot. The recent protests in Beijing and other cities over the COVID lockdowns, over the death of 11 people in Xinjiang in a COVID quarantine facility, and elsewhere over the State’s strict control of just about everything is irking the people of China. In February 2020, when the COVID situation went out of control, people responded on social media by asking, ‘Where is Xi Jinping?’. Consequently, President Xi went underground for a couple of weeks. In his current avatar, he has yes men surrounding him, and he even manages to find scapegoats for his failures. But bai lan is here to stay and could be the underpinning for China’s next Tiananmen.