In Between Involution & Laying Flat

The Present Response by China

Priyal Nahata


The second part of the article seeks to understand the side of the Chinese youth specifically students- who “call attention to issues” that require states to change their behaviour by “carving in external pressure” to conform.

There are “critical junctures” in every norm cycle- comprising of norm emergence, diffusion and internalisation- where an entrenched norm can be uprooted and replaced and China is clearly heading towards one (Bloomfield, 2016) – The question remains whether the youth will seize it or continue living in the permanent liminality of living on the limit despite being at the gate of social reaggregation because crises have the ability to break down roles and overturn culturally sanctioned functions and relations. (Mälksoo, 2012). Involution and Laying Flat is examined by looking at it in the field of education, as the critical juncture.

Educational Involution

The Chinese education system has been a key aggravator for involution and one of the main reasons is the highly competitive Gaokao college entrance exam. Deemed the toughest academic exam on earth, students who fail them are forced into vocational education and separated from service jobs. It has created a common twelve-hour-a-day studying schedule since passing the exam would guarantee middle-class status and prevent them from being stuck in the gig economy, furthermore, parental pressure to succeed becomes excruciating.

At Tsinghua University, the alma mater of President Jinping, suicide rates have been astounding and it was that university where a viral image of a student- named “Involution King”- was seen cycling on the campus while solving statistics problems on his laptop. Competition has become out of control as the students fight for a higher GPA, however, even those who make it to white-collar jobs do not find the 996 model sustainable (Minxi, 2020). This can be explained through the Chinese phrase of cutting chives- where people symbolically see themselves as herbs, on cutting one, it grows back within a short period of time.

This is a comment on the easy replacement of workers- therefore employers can overwork their employees, making them spiral more as the individual social labour’s marginal efficiency keeps decreasing (Bram, 2022). Sociologists have a term for educated young people in search of employment: ant tribes.

Within Beijing, there are a huge number of them settling into suffocating localities, toiling for incomes that are lower than factory workers. As Zhou Xiaozheng puts it – “Like ants, they gather in colonies, sometimes underground in basements and work long and hard.” (Jacobs, 2010) . It creates a “last bus mentality” as discussed by Xiang Bao.

The youth is afraid of not being able to have a better future than their parents, they are constantly afraid of being left behind in the educational rat race. While the lower classes hope to move upward the social ladder, the middle and upper classes want to ensure they maintain their status and do not fall. The truth is at the end of the day, the Chinese student can not quit the toxic competition or else they’ll be a moral disgrace (Qianni and Shifan, 2020).

Laying Flat is Justice

However, many are choosing to accept that this “last bus” has passed and are now “lying flat.” This movement, encouraging a “let it rot” culture is a fight against the state-proclaimed Chinese Dream and is a form of dissent. It is also a social critique of the crackdown on protests and marches by the President, asking young people to simply drop out of the state-driven society (Bram, 2022).

This movement was started by norm leader Luo Huazhong by posting on social media that “Lying Flat Is Justice.” While censorship took place and tanping was banned on the Chinese internet, the counterculture had already begun to refuse to participate in the prosperity narrative which was hollow. “After working for so long, I just felt numb, like a machine.” This sentiment by Huazhong resonated with many, suffering in the growing hypercompetitive work culture. Lying flat would mean disassociating oneself from societal expectations of marriage, having children and wanting a house and a car.

The “Master of Lying Down” who once worked twelve-hour shifts in a tire factory, now occasionally does acting work and finds time to “think freely”(Chen, 2021). Xi Jinping came down hard, calling those who were laying flat “shameless” and reaffirming that “A happy life is achieved through struggle” in the Party journal Qiushi.

With the looming demographic problem and economic stagnation, an anti-consumerist attitude is being taken up. Even as students decide to navigate burnout through psychotherapy workshops and other means, they continue to come back to the inward spiral they wish to escape (Bram, 2022) Many universities are fighting for the movement against involution, by advocating for leisure time, engaging in co-curricular activities, rise in liberal arts universities and parents encouraging their children to receive education abroad to have a more holistic life (Liu, 2021).

As the situation seems grave with the last bus having passed and a model so complex it cannot be escaped, the present youth should more and more recognise the danger of living in a state of permanent liminality. It shuts off innovation and encourages acceptance of disorientation as a permanent state of affairs. Instead these very grounds should be a tool for political mobilisation and the Chinese youth to become the “carriers of the new world view that is eventually institutionalised” (Mälksoo 487-489).

Way Forward

In conclusion, the paper sought to understand involution in China as an international norm and its unique trends and external influences impacting her historically and presently misplaced identity. By tracing the norm diffusion and internalisation by state agents and foreign historic influence, in a narrative convoluted and certainly not progressive, liminality helped situate the context in “human experience”.

With the actions of the norm entrepreneurs, one can understand how misplacement is so deeply internalised as a matter of routine and daily life but can be sought to be navigated through the counternorm of Laying Flat. Where China and her identity heads, lies in the hands of the various stakeholders- not just the state but the general public too- therefore analysis of the two and accounting for their voices is imperative to understand the nuanced norm cycle and its final destiny.

About the Author

Priyal Nahata is a Policy Research intern at IMPRI and is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree at Ashoka University, studying sociology and international relations.

Acknowledgement: Author would like to thank Satyam Tripathi, Chaitanya Vivek Deshpande and Ronak Guptafor their kind comments and suggestions to improve the article.


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Read first part of the article: The History of Involution in China