In the midst of the Shanghai lockdown from late March 2022, many residents confined to their apartments went online, where discussions of “runology” – how and where to emigrate – spiked dramatically. Throughout the month of April, there was increased chatter around the term on social media platforms. Seeming to illustrate the term and its possibilities weeks into the lockdown, as criticism raged, was a Facebook post on April 14 by Alibaba’s vice-president of technology, Jia Yangqing (贾扬清), who announced that he had escaped the lockdown from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport overnight, making it to California. Though Facebook is blocked in China, the post made the rounds on domestic platforms.
In online discussions, “Runology” has sometimes been characterized as one of three possible choices facing young people in China today, in the midst of a worsening economy and a toxic social and political climate of diminishing freedoms. One choice is to remain in China and apply oneself to a career in which only “involution” (内卷) is possible – a reference to to the idea that young people today work in a highly competitive environment with few prospects for real advancement, and become more and more exhausted in the process. Another choice is to simply relinquish ambition and live life “lying flat” (躺平), rejecting overwork in hedonistic protest. The third option is “Runology,” finding a way to escape China’s problems and its personal frustrations.