While much of the world is now living beyond Covid, dropping quarantine, testing, and even masking policies, China has become the exception, increasingly out of step with the world. Though some no doubt support the government’s rigid “people’s war” approach to Covid, resentment has been on the rise as Chinese struggle to live not so much with the virus as with the government’s inflexible and often arbitrary “zero Covid” measures.

As the policies go in China, so goes the propaganda. And on page two of the People’s Daily newspaper yesterday, readers can find the latest robust official defense of the Party’s handling of Covid-19, which speaks of continuing danger with familiar slogans like “persistence is victory” (坚持就是胜利) — a battle cry harking back to the Cultural Revolution.

But one phrase stands out from the official speak. Three times in yesterday’s article, the neologism “lying flat,” or tangping (躺平), is used to describe a weak and contemptible attitude of complacency toward Covid. “In doing a proper job of normalizing epidemic prevention and control, ‘lying flat’ is no way out,” the newspaper says.

Immediately after:

Some people see certain countries outside choosing ‘lying flat’ in the face of the epidemic. They believe that the costs are too great for our country in adhering to dynamic zero, and that we should follow suit, achieving coexistence with the virus. This is an extremely wrong and irresponsible view.

The deployment of tangping as an object of mockery in the official discourse of the Chinese Communist Party is an interesting turnabout for a phrase that emerged to wide popularity in 2021 as a shrug of apathy, urging Chinese to relinquish ambition and reject overwork in hedonistic protest — a kind of anti-battle cry.

But since May this year, when tensions crested over the inept and often dehumanizing tactics used to respond to Covid cases in Shanghai and other cities, “lying flat” has become a mainstream CCP buzzword for unacceptable lassitude, contrasted with the responsible and resolute attitude of the leadership.

In a May 16 article, the People’s Daily mocked the approach of countries like the UK to the spread of the Omicron variant. “The choice of ‘lying flat’ has not only led to the crowding out of health care resources in these countries and continued strain on health care systems, but mass infections have also had a long-lasting social and economic impact,” the paper said. And in an article two days later: “We have not chosen to ‘lie flat’ in the hope of avoiding more deaths and serious illnesses, and of promoting economic and social development on the foundation of safeguarding people’s lives and physical health.”

“Facts had shown,” the newspaper said on May 19, that “the ‘lying flat’ epidemic prevention of certain Western countries cannot eliminate the epidemic.” Another report on May 23 said that while marginal economic growth in the Eurozone could be attributed to many factors, the “choice of the ‘lying flat’ and ‘coexistence’ policy [toward Covid] has clearly not had the positive effect anticipated.”

An illustration of the “lying flat” phenomenon appears on the Q&A platform Zhihu in early May 2021.

Not surprisingly, “lying flat,” which during its rapid rise in 2021 prompted concern from the leadership, is now pitted against the attitude of “struggle” Xi Jinping has encouraged in the Party’s ranks. Over the summer, an article lionized the “revolutionary spirit” of resolute action: “In the face of difficulties and setbacks, to not ‘lie flat’ and give in to demoralization . . . working hard and forcefully — such is the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party member.”

There has been some moderation of Covid-related language in the official Chinese media in recent weeks as the Party has prepared for the 20th National Congress, to open in less than two weeks, and we shall have to see if any compromises on the rigid “Covid zero” policy follow once the crucial political season has passed.

But for now, resoluteness and rigidity are the order of the day, at least as much about political messaging as considerations of public health. No one within the leadership and its mouthpiece media can be permitted to relax.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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