Burned out by COVID, Chinese professionals take up nomadic life: 'I wasted so much time'
Chu Fei thought she was doing everything right in life.
At 30, she lived in Beijing and worked at one of the world’s largest tech firms. She had attended China's top school, Peking University, and gotten a master’s degree at Stanford. She felt the same pressure as anyone else to work hard, buy a home and settle down.
But last year, the striving that came so instinctively suddenly lost its meaning. She was exhausted by 12-hour workdays and long commutes, then nightmarish pandemic lockdowns. None of it seemed worth the financial payoff, the promise of which dwindled as the economy worsened.
“It just felt like my plan wouldn’t work anymore," she said.
Stuck at home, burned out, with murmurs of layoffs at her company growing, Chu began to realize that she didn't really like her work-driven life. So she started dreaming of a different one. In October, she quit her job, sold most of her possessions and moved to a provincial village some 800 miles from Beijing.
The growing aversion to conventional expectations — build a career, get married, buy a home, have children — is discouraged by the ruling Communist Party, which prizes social stability.
But China's economic slowdown, jarring after years of supercharged growth and exacerbated by harsh COVID restrictions, has forced many to put their lives on hold. Tech companies, once among the most reliable and coveted employers, have slashed jobs. Millions of college graduates are struggling to find work in the toughest labor market in decades.
Observers have noticed a growing malaise among a middle class weary of toiling in a hypercompetitive environment without much promise for material gain.
“The young generation has become more aware of the precarious situation that they are in," said Zhan Yang, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "They don’t want to just be stuck in one job forever, so they are experimenting with different ways of living. It’s like a small social experiment is taking place in China.”
Exact figures on how many people are living such lifestyles are elusive. But surveys show a growing interest in jobs that are more accommodating to different schedules and locations.
The number of flexible workers, such as part-timers or freelancers, in China nearly tripled to 200 million over the course of 2021, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. In a 2022 report by Peking University and Chinese recruitment platform Zhaopin, about 73% of respondents wanted to become digital nomads.
Even before the pandemic, backlash was growing over the punishing hours in China's high-powered industries, a grind known as 996 — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. Employees endured because they believed with enough ambition and grit, anyone could make their fortune. But social mobility has stalled in recent years, undermining that premise.
“It’s kind of like an adrenaline rush, a boost that drives people to work 996. But now the boost is gone,” Chu said. “People are saying, Whatever you do, you’re not going to get rich, you’re not going to make a lot of money, you’re not going to be successful. So why not do something you like?”
For Chu, that means leisurely mornings and afternoons spent writing, making videos and selling goods online. With income from those new endeavors, she calculates she has enough savings to support herself for a few years in smaller, cheaper cities as she fleshes out her longer-term plan.
For now, she’s settled in a once-bustling tourist town nestled between mountains and the shore of West Lake, a 40-minute drive from the city of Hangzhou.
She rents space in a villa that had been used as a hotel before the pandemic, living among the owner and his family — who moved in after tourism dried up — and often joining them for home-cooked meals. Around the village, neighbors tend to their vegetable fields and tea farms.
It’s a far cry from her life in Beijing, where she was often overwhelmed by work messages and demands. Worries about COVID tests or securing deliveries during lockdown exacerbated that fatigue, and the days began to blur together.
“There’s kind of a feeling, like what have I done for all these years? I’ve wasted so much time,” she said. “I can say I went to some good universities and worked at some big companies, but it’s not something you want to write on your tombstone, you know?”
Still, Chu doesn’t want to fully embrace the trend of tangping, or lying flat, a rejection of the country's rat race that gained popularity a few years ago. Disillusioned youth, tired of trying to fulfill societal expectations, relished the idea of giving up and just lying down. Others coined new variations, such as yangwoqizuo, or "sit-ups," which describes a cycle between struggle and capitulation. Chu said that doesn’t quite fit her current attitude either.
“I’m not giving up on myself and doing nothing, but I'm not standing up or running. I’m just sitting here doing things — but that’s what I think real life should be.”
She’s put off telling her parents that she left her job, because she doesn’t want them to worry. But she thinks they might come to understand. They live in Wuhan and were among the first to witness the devastation wrought by the pandemic; Chu believes they have also started to prioritize quality of life over traditional success.
For some in China that means leaving demanding jobs, trying to monetize hobbies, or hopping from town to town. Remote work hubs have popped up around the country; China's Instagram-like platform, Xiaohongshu, said searches for digital nomads surged 650% from January to August 2022. Social media users have begun documenting their transitory lifestyles — including stays in steeply discounted hotel rooms or tourist resorts left deserted during the pandemic.
Summer Li, who quit her job at an e-commerce startup early last year, used the proliferation of such posts to plan her own travels. In May, she moved to the southern tech hub of Shenzhen for one month before returning to Beijing. In August she spent another month in Kunming, the capital of the mountainous Yunnan province, followed by a brief sojourn in Jingdezhen, the "Porcelain Capital" of China, where she studied ceramics.
"I got this information because a lot of people are doing the same thing during COVID," said Li, who has been running an online jewelry business while on the road. "I just realized, I think going to work is not for me."
Chu had hesitated to give up her hard-earned job security, even as she watched friends quit work and travel. And when she first told her friends her plans to roam around China, many expressed concern, she said. After she started a video blog about her new life last month, friends and strangers reached out asking for tips on how to embark on similar journeys.
“In traditional Chinese society, many would think: People like you are not very good. They would say you are the unstable element of society,” Chu said. But lately, she has felt less pressure to settle down. “The good thing is that a lot of people are feeling the same way, that we don’t need to do the things that others want you to do.”
Last year, China's population shrank for the first time in six decades, threatening a demographic crisis with insufficient young people to work and support the elderly. To boost birthrates, local governments have begun offering more supportive policies for families raising young children, and they've promoted incentives to buy real estate during the housing downturn.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned the country’s youth against “lying flat,” even as employment prospects have dimmed. “Work is most glorious, our happy lives are created through work. Becoming rich or famous overnight is not realistic,” Xi said during a university visit in Sichuan province in June, according to state media.
But neither incentives nor admonishments have mitigated the spreading ambivalence. Some Chinese became so despondent last year that many began researching how to emigrate, spawning a new movement known as runxue, or "run philosophy."
Other countries, including Japan and South Korea, are experiencing similar struggles with a dejected younger generation, leading to low marriage and birth rates and putting pressure on governments to alleviate their citizens' financial stress.
“It’s basically an economic problem,” said Terence Chong, associate economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Young people, they think they have no hope, housing prices are so expensive, so they just limit how hard they work.”
Chinese officials have begun walking back harsh policies in an effort to boost the economy.
Last month, China suddenly relaxed its stringent zero-COVID policy. Since then, the virus has spread rampant throughout the country, overwhelming hospitals and straining medical supplies. However, it has allowed somewhat of a resumption of normal life and work, buoying hopes for an economic recovery.
Officials have also effectively declared an end to a years-long crackdown on private enterprise that battered tech companies and the for-profit education industry.
Even if the economy recovers, Chu can’t imagine going back to Beijing, or her former life.
“I think COVID gave me a chance to really reflect on myself,” she said. “If there was this opportunity to make a lot of money and be rich overnight, would I still be living the lifestyle I'm living right now? I don’t know, probably not.”
These days, Chu feels so removed from the rest of the world that she barely noticed when China lifted all COVID restrictions, until local villagers began to get sick. Even then, the outbreak felt milder than what she was hearing and reading about Beijing.
“If I turn off my phone, this place is like paradise,” she said. “I just hope that this life can last longer.”
At night, she often takes long walks around the tranquil village. She doesn’t remember the air ever smelling quite so sweet.
David Shen of The Times’ Taipei bureau contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.