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Brief #117: What “Run”ology Tells Us about China’s Youth

“Run”ology (润学)is an anodyne neologism coined by Chinese netizens in early 2022 to describe the “art” of emigrating from China. A Github page dedicated to the “art” has been set up, addressing questions such as “why one should run, where to run, and how to run.”

The standard assumption for some is that nationalistic youth must be bullish on China’s prospects. However, many with strong affections for the Chinese nation-state are nevertheless disillusioned with the daily grind and the rat race of life. They may identify with the nation in the abstract – yet also find its current state disheartening.

Indeed, from the never-ending lockdowns and tightened public health measures associated with COVID, to the rising costs of living and child-raising, to the narrowing of career options and pathways, this generation of Chinese youth has much to be anxious about. It’s no wonder, then, that on April 15 alone, Shanghai users looked up the keyword “immigration” 70 million times on WeChat.

Yet attributing their desire to emigrate to transient headwinds would be imprecise – more is at work and stake here. To start with, what is oft-overlooked is the psychosocial dimension of China’s demographic policy. The One-Child, then Two-Child, Policy – introduced in 1980 to curb what policymakers saw as an unsustainable growth in China’s population – had given rise to generations of nuclear families where the single child shoulders high expectations from both their parents as well as the Chinese state.

In the absence of substantial immigration, China is trending towards demographic greying in a manner that would increase pressures borne by the youth: the smaller workforce of tomorrow will need to pay for caring for an ageing society. Filial culture, societal pressures, parental expectations, and the complex sense of nationalité oblige (nationality obligates) act together to raise the bar of expectations on China’s youth.

Such bars are strenuous to reach and come with substantial costs and drawbacks. Given the inability to match expectations with reality, many of China’s youth have opted to ‘lie flat’ (躺平), to free themselves from the shackles of social, economic, and family pressures.

As some netizens have joked, youth in China these days are confronted by a poignant trilemma: involution, lying flat, or Run. Involution brings vast physical and psychological strain, often with no end in sight. Lying flat appears to be at odds with the Chinese government’s goal of transforming the country into a world-leading nation. In the absence of massive changes, the only option – for many – appears to be departing the country.

Yet we should not jump to hasty conclusions that all Chinese youth feel the same way. Many remain encouraged by China’s burgeoning middle class, vast markets and economic potential, and prospects for technological breakthroughs and innovation. Indeed, the number of Chinese nationals returning to the country after overseas study increased by 11.73 per cent between 2019 and 2020. Some are also buoyed by China’s relative successes in the first two years of the pandemic and disillusioned by what they perceive to be Western hypocrisy and racism.

Youth disaffection and disillusionment have been critical to many mass movements in modern China’s history, including the communist revolution itself. The rise of “Run”ology points to the mounting and changing pressures acting on China’s youth and their disenchantment with the China Dream.

By Brian Wong

Edited by Adam Ni