Chinese youth, labor and Marxism

July 4, 2021

From the July-August 2021 issue of News & Letters

“Since there has never really been a trend of thought that exalts human subjectivity in this land, I can create it for myself. Lying down is my wise man movement”

—kind hearted traveler

This post on Chinese social media is a part of a huge movement. “Lying flat” is a form of protest by Chinese youth and workers alike. They are rebelling against their inhumane working conditions and alienation. They either slow down their labor or do nothing at all.


Visual elements from Weibo, re-edited by Sixth Tone. Chinese characters read “lie flat.”

This growing movement has many shirts and other symbols to openly show their resistance to the Chinese dictatorship, which is desperately trying to censor them, threatening anyone who mentions it online or offline. The authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now aiming to crush dissent among workers and youth. They no longer “cut anyone slack” as they used to. Now they meet protest with quick police violence and imprisonment.

Why is the CCP ramping up their crackdown on protests? According to Chinese economists, “lying down” could lower productivity, consumption and the birth rate. They demand workers produce constantly, because it is that inhuman intense labor that is growing China’s economy at the cost of the human beings’ lives.

Workplace practices in China have been “overwork, abuse and injury.” Deaths of two young tech workers, one collapsing from overwork, the other by suicide, prompted young Chinese tech workers to launch a “996 ICU” campaign. The name refers to a popular saying: if you work from 9 to 9, 6 days a week, you’ll end up in an ICU. Over the last two years, the movement to expose brutal conditions has spread to over 200 companies. Young workers want the world to know about their total alienation from the way China’s tech companies have turned coding into mechanical, non-innovative drudgery. (See “Down and out in China’s tech boom,” Financial Times, 6/12/2021.)

All through society Chinese youth depression rates have skyrocketed from 1989 through 2018. Since the COVID-19 epidemic, it has only gotten worse. Experts who conducted this study blame workers’ social conditions. China’s youth’s conditions are similar to the U.S.: high housing prices, demand for ever-harder work, low fertility rate due to lack of income for young people and stress of overwork.

Marxism and Freedom by Raya Dunayevskaya. To order click here.

As Raya Dunayevskaya writes in Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 Until Today, “Labor is first of all the function of man. But labor under capitalism is the very specific function of man working at machines to which he becomes a mere appendage” (p. 56).

What we are witnessing in China is a reaction to the capitalist mode of production and the alienation, sexism, racism and depression that it brings. As Dunayevskaya wrote in 1953, authorities know that workers’ “low productivity […] is a sign of revolt.”

As we see these movements get bigger, the CCP will learn, as the USSR did, that you cannot “manipulate the dialectic to fit arguments both pro and con on any subject” (M&F, p. 43). Soon the CCP will see the Subject is not the Party or capital but human beings.

—William Smith

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