The rise of ‘bai lan’: why China’s frustrated youth are ready to ‘let it rot’

Show caption Young Chinese in Beijing. Shrinking economic opportunities and mounting uncertainties have fuelled a sense of hopelessness in their ranks.
Photograph: Roman Pilipey/EPA China The rise of ‘bai lan’: why China’s frustrated youth are ready to ‘let it rot’ Phrase bai lan gains popularity as severe competition and social expectations leave many young people despondent Vincent Ni China affairs correspondent Thu 26 May 2022 02.33 BST Share on Facebook

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Early this month China’s president Xi Jinping encouraged the country’s youth to establish “great ideals” and incorporate their personal goals into the “bigger picture” of the Chinese nation and people. “‘China’s hope lies in youth,” he said in a major speech.

But on China’s internet, some young people say their “ideals” simply cannot be achieved and many of them have given up on trying. Frustrated by the mounting uncertainties and lack of economic opportunities, they are resorting to a new buzzword – bai lan (摆烂, or let it rot in English) – to capture their attitude towards life.

The phrase, bai lan, which has its origin in NBA games, means a voluntary retreat from pursuing certain goals because one realises they are simply too difficult to achieve. In American basketball, it often refers to a player’s deliberate loss of a game in order to get a better draft pick.

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

In recent days, this phrase – and more previously ‘tang ping’ (lying flat, 躺平), which means rejecting gruelling competition for a low desire life – gained popularity as severe competition and high social expectations prompted many young Chinese to give up on hard work.

But bai lan has a more worrying layer in the way it is being used by young people in China: to actively embrace a deteriorating situation, rather than trying to turn it around. It is close to other Chinese phrases, for example ‘to smash 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 have taken note of this trend. “Why modern young Chinese like to ‘bai lan’?” one recent article in official media outlet asked. “In fact, this is as a result of negative auto suggestion, repeatedly telling oneself I cannot make it… And this kind of mentality often leads people to adopt the ‘bai lan’ attitude.”

But the reality is not quite as 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 attitude of letting things rot is likely to be caused by a lack of social mobility and increased uncertainty in today’s China.

“Unlike my parents’ generation, young Chinese today have much bigger expectations, but there are many more uncertainties for us, too. For example, we cannot make any long-term plans for our lives any more, because we do not know what is going to happen to us even five years down the road.”

After working as a flight engineer in south-western China, Hang moved to Beijing three years ago to work in music, his passion. But the workplace reality changed his initial ambition.

“My boss often sets unrealistic targets for me. But however hard I try to meet his KPIs, I always fail. So in the end, I lose my motivation and just do my bare minimum.”

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

But in today’s China, the sense of hopelessness among the young is further exacerbated by shrinking economic opportunities, she says. In the past few months, while hundreds of millions of Chinese people were confined to their homes due to Covid lockdowns, the world’s second-largest economy also found itself struggling to boost growth.

More than 18% of young Chinese people aged between 16 and 24 were jobless in April – the highest since the official record began. “Hard to find a job after graduation this year? Fine, I’ll just bai lan – stay at home and watch TV all day,” wrote one netizen who struggled to find work, despite China’s top leader urged young people to fight for the future.

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

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

Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin and Xiaoqian Zhu