Understanding American Gen Zers can be a trying exercise, leavened only by an awareness that they find it equally hard to understand us. Parsing China’s Gen Zers is at least as difficult.
By Gregory F. Treverton
Note: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.
Overall, and here they may not be all that different from their American counterparts, they are a bundle of contradictions. On one hand, they are increasingly vocal, even belligerent in their nationalist tendencies, and frequently resort to cyberspace as a platform to find solidarity or garner support. ‘China’s Gen-Z (defined loosely as individuals born after 1996) tends to be associated with images of ferocious, vocal, and unyieldingly nationalistic supporters of the country and regime. …“[P]ost-millennial students usually have a strong sense of superiority and confidence, and they tend to look at other countries from a condescending perspective.”’
They were born in the new millennium when China’s development was on a fast track. This trajectory made for a triumphant, resolute pride in their country. China joined the World Trade Organization and became the world’s largest economy (in purchasing power parity terms). It sent its first astronaut into space and hosted the 2008 Olympics. They have come of age in the Xi Jinping regime, with its anti-corruption campaign but also images of the Chinese dream. “For many in China’s latest generation, the source of nationalistic pride is neither political nor state-oriented—it is instead the innovation and enduring tenacity of civil entrepreneurs and researchers who have come to transform China.”
On the other hand, a suggestive manifestation of the challenges China faces going forward is the emergence in the early 2020s of the so-called “lying flat” movement. Young Chinese, including professionals, began opting out of relentless work and competition. Some in that generation, one that is meant in Xi Jinping’s plans to be the engine of both innovation and consumption, are rejecting both. They reject the admonition of their elders, like Alibaba’s Jack Ma, to do “996”—working nine to nine six days a week—also dubbed the “wolf culture’ in which workers must kill or be killed, metaphorically at least. Consumer debt has grown dramatically, with increasing amounts coming from online financial providers, often at usurious interest rates. Coupled with the rocketing cost of living in Chinese cities, even young graduates from elite universities find it hard to make ends meet, much less engage in the conspicuous consumption that is their patriotic duty. The young “leek people” lie flat lest they suffer the fate of the leek, being continuously harvested by a blade.
The movement is a straw in the wind for changing attitudes among white-collar Chinese workers. In a recent poll, 80% cited fairness and respect as the most important elements of corporate culture, rejecting 996 and wolf culture. In China as elsewhere in the world, the Covid-19 pandemic drove deep questions about life and work, sharpened by the severity of China’s “zero Covid” lockdowns. Gen Zers recognized that despite all the hard work, they still had little control over their lives. As the lockdowns ended, they emerged into a country with slower economic growth but record numbers of college graduates. In the summer of 2022, the unemployment rate among young people aged 16–24 was 20% by official statistics, with the rate still higher among college graduates. Some opted for jobs in the gig economy, paying way less than their skills might command but also permitting them more freedom to shape their lives.
Understandably, the Chinese government is promoting “return migration,” which encourages the pattern of American Gen Zers, who seem more attached to their hometowns than their elders, by encouraging young workers to return home rather than concentrate in big cities. From the late 2010s onward, internal migration from the poorer western and central regions of China slowed as those regions transformed. One study looked at the range of assets—from financial to human, and social capital, including family relations, access to social security, housing, and infrastructure, and to productive assets such as land. In economic-ese, low stocks of these assets in China’s big eastern cities—the factors that drive those Gen Zers toward gig jobs—is a push factor in return migration. To the extent that those assets look more attractive in home countries, that becomes a pull factor.
As with other bumps in the road for China, this one is rife with uncertainty. Surely, any portrait of America would be colored with youthful (and sometimes not so youthful) drop-outs, from the beatniks of the 1950s to the hippies of the 1960s, to the more recent “great resignation”—those workers who didn’t return to their former jobs when the pandemic permitted, instead seeking greener pastures in work and lifestyle elsewhere. Some reaction in China to relentless work and consumption is understandable: as the Chinese middle class grows, it is hard to imagine 996 continuing to be the order of the day, and changing attitudes no doubt will contribute to slower growth in the future. How much, though, remains to be seen, along with how much of a challenge lying flat and its kin will pose to the basic tenets of China under the Communist Party—hard work and a growing domestic market.
 Wong, Brian, “The Complex Nationalism of China’s Gen-Z,” The Diplomat, June 19, 2022, thediplomat.com/2022/06/the-complex-nationalism-of-chinas-gen-z/.
 David, Bandurski, The “Lying Flat” Movement Standing in the Way of China’s Innovation Drive, Brookings, July 8, 2021, www.brookings.edu/techstream/the-lying-flat-movement-standing-in-the-way-of-chinas-innovation-drive.
 As cited in Vivian Wang and Zixu Wang, “In China, Young Workers Ditch Prestige Jobs for Manual Gigs,” New York Times, April 11, 2023, p. 1.
 Gohar Tadevosyan, Shaojun Chen, and Rong Liu, Returning Migrants in the People’s Republic of China Challenges And Perspectives—Evidence From Chongqing, ADB East Asia Working Paper Series, Number 33, December 2020, www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/666321/eawp-33-returning-migrants-prc-chongqing.pdf.