China might have seen the stirrings of a revolution with the COVID protests, but the country's youth isn't finished lying flat

  • When protests against zero-COVID measures erupted in China, some thought it was a turning point.

  • Some commentators saw it as the end of "lying flat," Chinese youths' version of quiet quitting.

  • But two experts told Insider this resignation and inaction won't just go away.

When anti-government protests erupted in China over Thanksgiving weekend, it looked like the stirrings of a revolution.

Youths poured into university campuses and onto the streets of major cities toting blank pieces of paper, a new symbol of dissent. Some commentators wondered if the movement would go in the direction of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, where leaderless groups of people swarmed the streets in defiance of the mainland Chinese government. Others asked if the protests meant China's Gen-Z wasn't going to "lie flat" anymore — a reference to disenchanted youths resorting to doing the bare minimum to get by in life.

But ten days later, the shouts of "we won't be slaves, we are citizens" have faded to a hum of discontent on Weibo, China's Twitter-like platform, where posts are expressing discontent are quickly censored. Chinese President Xi Jinping has rolled back parts of the zero-COVID policy that kept millions of people restricted to their homes and subject to mass COVID testing, and the streets are being heavily patrolled by police.

Two Singapore-based professors who study China said that while the protests show dissatisfaction has brimmed to the point of overflow, the majority of China's youths aren't going to risk life and limb to pursue freedom.

Chinese youths are probably going to keep lying flat

The youths who protested likely subscribe to the idea of "letting it rot," said Alfred Wu, an expert on China at Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

"If you put yourself in the shoes of Chinese university students, they have spent three years stuck at home doing online courses. They have not had the chance to live, study, and enjoy any part of college life like the students before them," Wu told Insider. The term "letting it rot" is used to describe a Chinese phenomenon where frustration with the rat race has inspired an intense hatred of the system.

That said, the protests don't mark a turning point in society, Wu said, because it remains very dangerous to wage protests in China.

"The reason why people are protesting is that the root cause of their unhappiness has not been addressed," Wu said. "But what you're going to see more of is people 'lying flat' in silent protest."

Thousands of demonstrators erupt in rare protests against COVID-19 restrictions across China.
Thousands of demonstrators erupt in rare protests against COVID-19 restrictions across ChinaAFP/Getty Images

Xi's move in easing some COVID restrictions "will certainly ease frustration" among China's youth, but it's not enough to turn to the tide in youth sentiment altogether, said Chong Ja Ian, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore.

The relaxed restrictions are "still unlikely to alleviate the broader sense of hopelessness that many young people in the PRC seem to feel," Chong told Insider.

He added that the anger on display in these protests is distinct from the resignation, despondency, and passivity associated with "lying flat."

"I think the protests are reflective of frustration with zero-COVID, which is separate from the structural constraints and obstacles such as the lack of work-life balance, limited prospects, and exhaustion that gave rise to 'lying flat,'" Chong said.

Protests against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak measures in Urumqi city, Xinjiang Uygur, China in this screen grab obtained from a video released November 25, 2022.
Protests against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak measures in Urumqi city, Xinjiang Uygur, China in this screen grab obtained from a video released November 25, 2022.Reuters

China's youths are still living in a pressure-cooker economy

Chong told Insider there may be more youth-led movements down the road, but that the trigger is often "difficult to predict."

And while the protests made front-page news internationally, they were not massive in scale: "The people that you see being involved in the protests are actually a small group," Wu said.

Wu said the question of whether China's youth will again protest depends on whether there's another window of opportunity in the years to come. Youth unemployment is very high in some cities, he said, and Xi's insistence on the zero-COVID strategy has only caused frustration to mount. "We are the last generation" — a now-censored social media hashtag Chinese youths used in order to rage about lockdowns — was a good example of this frustration bubbling over, Wu said.

Graduates attend their ceremony at Huazhong University of Science and Technology on June 22, 2022 in Wuhan, Hubei, Chin
Youth unemployment rate is expected to increase as 10.78 million college students graduate this summer.China News Service/Getty Images

Chong added that the country's youths are in a pressure cooker of high youth unemployment, bad work-life balance, a high cost of living, and a general sense of being controlled by the government. And the economic slowdown from the lockdowns has only made the road ahead for the average Chinese youth more difficult.

However, maintaining momentum is also a difficult task.

"Even though this current round of protests appears to have some coordination as people take cues from different cities as they protest, there does not appear to be much organization despite allegations by PRC authorities about 'hostile forces,'" Chong said.

"Of course, some incident or overreaction by the authorities could prolong and intensify opposition to the party-state, as could a continuation of harsh social controls," Chong added. "Otherwise, the protests could dissipate — into more resignation."


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