China’s campaigns against laziness and video games

Is it possible to enforce guidelines against laziness?  If anybody can do it, China can.

“A happy life is earned through struggle, and common prosperity requires industriousness,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in an August speech about his “common prosperity” initiative (also discussed in my previous post.)  “We must resolutely prevent [ourselves] from falling into the trap of nurturing lazy people through ‘welfarism.’  We must… encourage industriousness and innovation as means to prosperity… with participation from everyone, and avoid… ‘lying flat.’”

The phrase “lying flat” first became popular in China last April after 31 year old LuoHuazhong published a social media post explaining “I have not been working for two years, just having fun and don’t see anything wrong in it… I [just] feel that many things are not worthy of my attention and energy… Do we have to work 12 hours a day in a sweatshop?”  Luo had previously held several jobs since dropping out of vocational high school, such as working 12 hours a day in a tire factory.  Then, he decided he preferred “doing nothing. He quit his job… biked 1,300 miles from Sichuan Province to [his home in] Tibet and decided he could get by on odd jobs and $60 a month from his savings. He called his new lifestyle ‘lying flat.’”

The phrase does not imply lying in bed all day every day, but is instead a state of mind of doing the bare minimum needed to get by.  Luo now eats just two meals a day – mostly noodles, rice, and eggs – and spends about 200 yuan ($31) per month on his minimalist lifestyle.  He supplements his income with occasional part-time jobs, including one assignment at a film studio “that he considered perfect – acting as a dead body in movies.”  Luo spends most of his time reading news and philosophy, and working out, and lives at home sponging off his parents. 

China’s lying flat (tang ping) movement produced many internet memes, including this one which was posted by a cat lover with the caption was “Finally, a social movement I can get behind.”

Government censors did not like the sound of this, and Luo’s original post was soon “scrubbed from the internet. However, copies quickly spread online, sparking lively discussions and videos – many of which garnered millions of views each… they, too, have since been deleted.” 

Despite the censors’ efforts, the concept spread like wildfire, and led to a national “lying flat” movement, complete with T-shirts that say things like “Do nothing lie flat youth,” and “Don’t buy property; don’t buy a car; don’t get married; don’t have children; and don’t consume.”

This concept fell on fertile ground in a country where many Chinese have to work a “996” schedule – from 9 AM to 9 PM six days a week.  But the payoff for all that work can be hard to see since, as David Bandurski, Co-Director of the China Media Project at Brookings put it in one of the best overviews of this movement, “skyrocketing living costs in China’s cities have meant that many young Chinese, even with elite college degrees, find it difficult to cover the basics, much less afford a life of conspicuous consumption.” 

The result, according to Bandurski, is that many workers are beginning to “balk at the Party’s high-minded calls for ‘continued struggle.’” Some observers interpret the movement as “a manifesto against materialism, some suspect it is simply being lazy, and others say this type of defeatist attitude is an inevitable result when people become so overwhelmed and dismayed by the notion of working themselves to the bone that they feel there is no other option but to give up.”

Whatever the interpretation, Communist leadership sees the movement as threatening the economy in two ways.  First, it reduces production by reducing hours worked.  Second, when practitioners spend less, it reduces the consumption which is expected to drive future growth.

Lying flat is just one of the many lifestyle patterns that China hopes to change through its loosely defined common prosperity initiative.   Of all the crackdowns to bring behavior into line with socialist values, the one which is likely to be least popular among teenagers is a new limit of three hours per week on playing video games.  And, oh yeah, the three hours per week must be between 8 and 9 PM on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  (By comparison, last year the average US teenage boy spent about 21 hours per week playing video games.)

A few weeks before these new rules were announced, a state-run publication compared “video games to ‘electronic drugs’ and ‘spiritual opium,’ eliciting memories of the 1800’s, when millions of Chinese became addicted to smoking opium during the country’s Opium Wars with the United Kingdom.”

According to a New York Times article: “As a more paternalistic government under the Chinese leader Xi Jinping has turned to direct interventions to mold how people live and what they do for fun, gaining control over video games has been high on the priority list… Mr. Xi’s government has increasingly deemed games a superfluous distraction at best — and at worst, a societal ill that threatens the cultural and moral guidance of the Chinese Communist Party.”

The concept of limiting video game playing is not new, but the 2021 total of 3 hours per week represents almost an 80% reduction from the previous Chinese regulation, which limited children to about 14 hours of video games per week (three hours per day on weekends and 1.5 hours on weekdays). 

How could such draconian regulations be enforced?  In China, when people “sign into a game [they must] first provide a mobile phone number, state-issued ID, or even undergo a facial scan.” 

But since we are talking about teenagers, some have already found their way around the bans.  When one Chinese newspaper conducted a survey of parents a month after the new rules went into effect, one reported that his son replaced one bad habit with another, and is now “obsessed with watching others playing video games on streaming services.”  Another parent reported that her son had supplemented gaming with a new internet hobby: “he got hooked on short-video platforms instead, spending hours a day browsing clips and creating content himself.”

Still other teens borrowed a phone from a parent or grandparent.  And some entrepreneurial adults even began placing ads on ecommerce sites to rent their gaming accounts.  “By paying as little as 33 yuan ($5), under-18s could borrow gaming accounts from adult vendors for two hours of use.”

Despite pushback from the public on these and related crackdowns, there is every reason to expect more pressure like this in the future.  As Xi Jinping summed it up in his August speech:  “In our efforts to seek happiness for the people and continuously consolidate the Party’s foundation for holding power over the long term, we shall focus on driving common prosperity for all.” (Italics added for emphasis.)

But what if these two goals – happiness for the people and CPC power – find themselves in conflict?  The Party may find the situation unusually hard to control.  As an article in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post put it, “quelling protests in the streets is one thing, but getting millions of individuals out of their beds and forcing them to engage in society is entirely different.”