The Rise of ‘Bai Lan’: Why Frustrated Chinese Youth Are Willing to ‘Let It Rot’ | China

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EEarlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping encouraged the country’s youth to set “high ideals” and integrate their personal goals into the “big picture” of the Chinese nation and people. “’China’s hope lies in the youth,’ he said in an important speech.

But on the Internet in China, some young people say that their “ideals” simply cannot be achieved and many of them have given up trying. Frustrated by the growing uncertainties and lack of economic opportunity, they resort to a new buzzword – bai lan (摆烂, or leave him to rot in English) – to capture their attitude to life.

The expression bai lan, which originated in NBA games, signifies a voluntary withdrawal from the pursuit of certain goals because one realizes that they are simply too difficult to achieve. In American basketball, it often refers to a player deliberately losing a game in order to get a better draft pick.

On Weibo, bai lan topics have generated hundreds of millions of reads and discussions since March. Netizens have also created different variations of the bai lan attitude. “Are properties in Shanghai too expensive? Fine, I’ll rent all my life, because I can’t afford it if I only earn a monthly salary anyway,” grumbled one.

In recent days, this phrase – and earlier “tang ping” (flat, 躺平), meaning to reject grueling competition for a low-desire life – has grown in popularity as stiff competition and high social expectations have prompted many young Chinese people to drop out. hard work.

But bai lan has a more disturbing layer in the way it is used by young people in China: actively embracing a deteriorating situation, rather than trying to reverse it. It is close to other Chinese expressions, for example “breaking a cracked pot” (破罐破摔) and “dead pigs are not afraid of boiling water” (死猪不怕开水烫).

State media has taken note of this trend. “Why do modern Chinese youth love ‘bai lan’?” asked a recent article in an official media. “Actually, it’s the result of negative auto-suggestions, repeatedly repeating to myself that I can’t do it… And that kind of mentality often leads people to adopt the ‘bai lan’ attitude.”

But the reality is not quite what state media suggested, says Sal Hang, a 29-year-old creative industry professional in Beijing. He says that for his generation of young Chinese, this let-rot attitude is likely caused by a lack of social mobility and heightened uncertainty in today’s China.

“Unlike my parents’ generation, today’s young Chinese people have much higher expectations, but there are also a lot more uncertainties for us. For example, we can no longer make long-term plans for our lives, because we don’t know what will happen to us even in five years.

After working as a flight engineer in southwest China, Hang moved to Beijing three years ago to work in music, his passion. But the reality of the job changed his initial ambition.

“My boss often sets me unrealistic goals. But even if I try to meet his KPIs, I always fail. So in the end, I lose my motivation and just do my bare minimum.

Professor Mary Gallagher, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, said “bai lan” is not necessarily a Chinese-specific sentiment. “It’s a bit like the ‘slacker’ generation in America in the 1990s. And like ‘tang ping’ last year, it’s also a rejection of the ultra-competitiveness of Chinese society today. today.

But in today’s China, the sense of hopelessness among young people is further exacerbated by diminishing economic opportunities, she said. In recent months, as hundreds of millions of Chinese have been confined to their homes due to Covid shutdowns, the world’s second-largest economy has also struggled to boost growth.

More than 18% of young Chinese aged 16 to 24 were out of work in April – the highest since the official record began. “Hard to find a job after graduation this year? Alright I’m just gonna bai lan – stay 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.

Kecheng Fang, a media professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says young Chinese people use “bai lan” or “tang ping” to show they are not cooperating with the official narrative. “All of these popular phrases reflect a shared social emotion of the day. When people use them, they’re not just expressing themselves, but looking for a connection with those who feel the same way,” he says.

“Despite the official grand narrative from the leaders, in real life we ​​are all in the same boat after all.”

Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin and Xiaoqian Zhu

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