Opening up to the West and spreading profoundly different social models has been a side effect of China’s industrial strategy. The challenge for Xi Jinping is to resist dissent caused by unorthodox ideas and their circulation online. The analysis of Andrea Monti – Adjunct Professor of Digital Law, University of Chieti-Pescara – Initially published in Italian by Formiche.net
It is too early to know what will happen to the protest movement of that part of the younger Chinese generations that identifies itself with tangping (躺平) – lying flat – born to challenge working conditions in the manufacturing sector. It will be interesting to see, then, whether tangping is a simple dent in the granite-made Confucian-communist system that sustains the paradox of dirigiste capitalism or whether it is a crack that may widen and weaken it down to the point of making it even less distinguishable from a pure market economy system.
With a certain naivety, some commentators have analysed the phenomenon using typically Western categories. They have re-proposed a modern romantic vision of being over having, or they have formulated age-old criticisms of work as a false idol that lump Chinese events together with the American situation in a rather forced way. Others have more correctly pointed out that productive independence is a strategic goal for China that Lying Flatters potentially challenge.
Industrial independence and technological supremacy require many workers who do not necessarily want to improve their social conditions by aspiring to become part of the white-collar class. In other words, in its (geo)political strategy, China cannot weaken the centrality of manufacturing and technology by a lack of workers. In the name of the motherland and the Party’s best interests, this implies limiting the number of floors covered by the social lift and thus preventing the working and middle classes from emancipating themselves from their condition beyond a specific limit.
However, as history teaches us, only the intimate adherence of the people to a political project makes it possible to keep control in the hands of the ruling class. Achieving this goal means ensuring that the masses do not stray from orthodoxy and, therefore, are not exposed to cultural models that unravel the social fabric or introduce disorder. Hence, as the Xenelasia of the Spartan king Lycurgus already did, comes the need to control ideas’ circulation and limit contact with the outside world through laws and propaganda.
The comparison with Sparta is less out of place than it might seem. Tangping is openly (and simplistically) inspired by the figure of Diogenes, from whom he takes the exteriority of him living in a barrel. Now, it is not crucial that the reference is philosophically correct but that the basis of the protest is a foreign idea (as in ‘it comes from outside’) and is foreign because it does not belong to the official doctrine.
The Party’s reaction has manifested itself on several levels: the removal of online content conveying the “alien” idea, a ban on the sale of clothing praising the movement, but also the launch of an intense press campaign based on the concept of betrayal of national values and the duty to contribute by all means to the country’s growth.
The difficulty of countering tangping, however, lies in the non-violent nature of the movement, whose modus operandi works on the idea that when you call yourself out of the loop… you can no longer be mowed down, as the image posted on a Chinese social media site last May explains. Sickle flails in vain as the plants are folded in on themselves, lying on the ground. The caption says, ‘Leeks that lie down cannot be harvested so easily.
However, one might argue, even if one can not mow them, lying leeks can still be squashed with tractors.