Working to death in China has led to “lying flat” as protest

“You’re a slave to money then you die,” The Verve sang in their timeless Bitter Sweet Symphony. People are dying in China from over-working.

This could not be more true, especially in China, where a strict work and study ethic is engrained so intensely that people are working themselves to death, and are “lying flat” in protest.

Rigorous work ethics aren’t anything new in society, and it’s definitely the complete norm in most countries.

Two exhausted looking Pinduoduo employees working at their desk
Image: Jing Daily

In China, millennials have taken to the social rebellion of 躺平主义, the “lying flat movement.”

This has been described as a mindset, lifestyle, and personal choice in defying society’s expectations on work, especially the demanding 9-9-6 work culture – working from 9 am-9 pm six days a week.

The “lying flat” movement is commonly known as a response to “neijuan” (involution), a common term that encompasses the ‘hyper-competitive’ lifestyle in China.

A photo went viral of a Tsinghua University student studying on his laptop while riding a bicycle, which has been described as the perfect example of ‘neijuan’ – outlining that there is so much pressure to succeed you mustn’t waste any time at all.

What is imperative to note, though, is that ‘lying flat’ isn’t just literal but also metaphorical and symbolic.

This social protest includes many different ways to lie flat (apart from actually lying flat), including rejecting marriage, rejecting starting a family, rejecting overtime work and being imprisoned in a desk job.

There is no hyperbole in “working themselves to death.” 

Earlier in 2021, an e-commerce company Pinduoduo experienced two employee deaths – a 23-year-old employee collapsed and died on their walk home from work, where they were at the office until 1:30 AM.

Two weeks later, another Pinduoduo employee named Tan committed suicide, after taking leave from the company and returning to their hometown.

This inspired a third employee to post a viral video detailing how the company expected their employees to work more than 12 hours a day.

“We feel profound sadness that we lost one of our employees to suicide. We are doing everything we can to support his family and loved ones during this difficult time,” was stated by a Pinduoduo spokesperson.

Furthermore, a dedicated team of psychologists had been enlisted to provide counselling services in the wake of Tan’s death.

However, many in the lie-down movement have pointed out that if Pinduoduo really cared about the morale of their company, internal channels of psychologists should’ve introduced sooner to aide people who undoubtedly struggle with robotic work hours?

I mean, you would think they would, with suicide being the fifth-highest cause of death in China. 

The agriculture-focused-e-commerce company’s controversial spotlight doesn’t end there.

A recently trending topic on popular microblogging platform, Weibo, was none other than Pinduoduo.

The reason? A former employee, (last name Wang), shared a video in which he was allegedly fired for sharing a photo of an ambulance that arrived at Pinduoduo with another employee who collapsed at work suffering from enterospasm.

The video went viral and hit 2.2 million likes on Weibo, a testament to the empathy other citizen’s share over this ongoing issue of overworking.

Wang had anonymously posted the initial photo at the time on a LinkedIn-esque platform called ‘Maimai’. However,  Pinduoduo found out, and fired him for posting the photo.

Later, Pinduoduo stated they didn’t fire him for posting the photo, but for making “extreme remarks” in the past on the platform that violated internal company conduct rules.

Sure, that was the sole reason.

In light of these events, the “lying flat manifesto” gained momentum on Facebook-esque platform Douban, but of course was removed quite quickly.

An anonymous user outlined the manifesto eloquently:

“Since there has never been an ideological trend exalting human subjectivity in our land, I shall create one for myself. Lying down is my wise man’s movement. Only by lying down can humans become the measure of all things.”

The removal of the manifesto on Douban hasn’t deterred ‘lie-down’ outreach, and has set it alight further with the hope to support future generations of Chinese citizens.

One comment on Wang’s Weibo video outlined the need for: “overthrowing 996 depends on the post-[19]95 generation.”

Another comment outlined, “the post-95 and post-00 generations have a lot of courage, and their logic isn’t bad.” 

Let their courage lead the way and break down poor labour, I say.