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  • Adam Terenyi

Digest: Summer 2024 Issue 80

Welcome to the China Leadership Monitor's Summer 2024 Digest, which provides article summaries for those who have not yet explored our most recent issue.

Jump to each article summary here:


Patricia Thornton:

“Lying Flat-ism”: Is the Party Under Xi “Governing People to Death”?

In the Xi Jinping era, China’s legitimating basis has shifted from economic performance to “comprehensive strict governance.” The resulting increasingly coercive form of rule has led to disillusionment among many citizens who feel governed “to death” and, in turn, have explicitly and implicitly protested. The A4 movement during the zero-covid policy, as well as the “lying flat” movement, emerged as a response to higher levels of societal dissatisfaction with both the state and economy. In response, Xi and top Party officials have co-opted some grassroots movements to create rhetorics favorable to totalitarian rule. One example involves the use of the term “lying flat” to negatively describe more lax Western covid responses. Rooted in the Party’s attempted co-optation of the “lying flat” movement is a truth about “lying flat-ism’s” origin as a protest against heightened state-orchestrated coercion in China.

The Popularization of Lying Flat

The idea of “lying flat” initially emerged as a commentary on resistance to social pressures in 2011 and 2016. It eventually reappeared in 2021 as a political-social commentary on the absence of meaning in a growingly complex world when the social media public witnessed the suicide of a lorry driver after a string of injustices delivered to him. Following this spectacle, one netizen – twenty-year-old Luo Huazhong – ultimately popularized the current meaning of “lying flat” when he had written that he “had withdrawn from the rat race” of aspiring towards the ‘ideal’ of building a career and family. Luo stated that he had found peace in “lying flat” while describing the origins of his idea in Greek philosophy. With the term becoming more popular online, publications like Guangming Daily and even Xi Jinping had begun rebuking it, urging citizens to work harder and help build the dream of Chinese national rejuvenation.

Party Co-optation

In 2021, the Party began to co-opt “lying flat,” using the term as a derisive label for foreign governments it deemed as too lax in dealing with the virus. By labeling the governments of the Honk Kong special administrative region, United Kingdom, and Norway, for example, as “lying flat” in their approaches to covid, Party officials hoped to inspire internal confidence in zero-covid. From 2021 to 2022, the Communist Party had achieved significant “wins” regarding this rhetorical strategy, even seeing “lying flat” used in a World Health Organization report to describe Western covid responses.

Deriding “Formalism”

Xi, ever since rising to the upper echelons of the Party, had opposed insubordination and overall leadership incompetence by officials and Party members. Attempting to shore up productivity and ideological alignment with his visions, he has spoken and acted against leaders seen as embracing “formalism,” a term describing Party cadres who “avoid responsibility for their failures to act,” “have insufficient entrepreneurial spirit,” or work only “superficially.” 

Amidst the zero-covid response and a need to shore up total adherence to Party dogma and diktats, Xi’s already anti-formalist stance hardened as work demands – such as for more data reporting requirements and performance and policy evaluation reports – proliferated. Fang Ning argues that it is precisely this type of top-down rulemaking and dogma that has led to ever more “formalism” at the “grassroots,” indicating the Party is the principal cause in “lying flat.”

The Cat and the Mouse: Fighting Formalism and Lying Flat

Following the Mao era, the Party found legitimacy in economic performance, placing demands on its leaders to deliver economic growth. The resulting neo-authoritarian governance model trapped the regime in a hopeless cycle of capturing growth while accepting high levels of corruption and economic inefficiencies to achieve political buy-in from elites and stakeholders. Xi signaled a departure from the Deng Xiaoping-initiated reliance on performance legitimacy in 2013, when he created and became chair of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform at the third plenum of the 18th Party Congress. As opposed to the previous Deng-originated philosophy of allowing local flexibility in implementing policy, he began to centralize economic policymaking and built a “top-level” system design.

A cocktail of anti-corruption campaigns, “political exhortations,” and “stiff sanctions” has emerged since 2013. Ironically, the regime has labeled this as comprehensive governance with the “loving kindness” of a strict parent. Unfortunately for the Party, however, helicopter parenting can lead to a backlash that is often invisible, in the form of “lying flat.” Many have, much like teenagers with their parents, learned to avoid, lie, and manipulate their leaders’ overbearing attitudes through “lying flat,” generating new challenges for the Party.


M. Taylor Fravel:

China’s Global Security Initiative at Two: A Journey, Not a Destination

At the Boao Forum in 2022, Xi Jinping introduced the Global Security Initiative (GSI), which this paper examines, alongside two others, the Global Development and Global Civilizational Initiatives. Ultimately, the GSI highlights China's global governance goals and desires for the future of the security environment. As a security architecture, the GSI is vague – lending comparison to other initiatives like Belt and Road, thus facilitating greater buy-in from the diverse geopolitical periphery. Despite its vagueness, many states are skeptical of the Initiative and have only symbolically supported it. If China aims to “surround the hegemon from the periphery” with the GSI, it has much left to do.

Formulating the GSI

Over the previous two years, several reports and working papers have worked to elucidate the GSI’s proposals, which involve respecting the concepts undergirding (1) common security, (2) sovereignty, (3) the United Nations charter, (4) fully respecting all states’ “security concerns,” (5) avoiding conflict through dialogue, and (6) maintaining overall security in all domains; notably, all of these principles reflect long-standing Chinese foreign policy priorities.

While some of these principles directly contradict each other and are utopian, these features result from the GSI’s deliberate nebulousness, meant to facilitate maximum buy-in for Chinese foreign policy. In effect, the GSI is a momentum-builder for Chinese goals, such as increased economic and security involvement in the global periphery, including Latin America and Africa. In the end, however, its vagueness may inhibit realization of China’s true ambitions with the GSI.

Countering the United States

Consistent throughout the GSI’s rhetorical framing is an oppositional stance towards the United States (US). While lacking innate policy substance, reports published separately from – but at the same time as – vague GSI working papers often deride US hegemony, with one document from the Xinhua Institute, a Chinese think tank, arguing that the US has harmed “the international community” by interfering in and infiltrating scores of countries. Such rhetoric is referred to by scholars as a “delegitimization strategy” meant to shift the soft power balance by (1) lowering the bar for alternative ideas, such as China’s, and (2) decreasing Western pressure on China. This antagonistic framing may cut against the GSI’s “common security” rhetoric, however.

Perceptions of the GSI

The GSI’s 2023 concept paper envisions implementation of its policy through various international organizations, most being Asian ones and, often, Chinese-origin organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Within these international organizations, however, the response is mixed. Within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), only half of members have expressed “formal support,” while Indonesia, for example, has been more reserved. Support is also mild in the UN, SCO, BRICS, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, but was high in the 2023 China-Central Asian Summit.

China has had success in securing joint statements in favor of the GSI and related initiatives at fora like the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation and Arab-China Summit, both in 2022. In addition, informal fora and dialogues help build Chinese and non-Western views of international relations, such as through funding research institutes promoting alternative scholarship.

In 2023, China saw significant success in guiding rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but has not extended this achievement to other geographies due to a cautiousness between choosing sides and gaining geo-strategic rewards. This reflects the GSI’s inherent vagueness in order to build consensus, reflexively hurting China’s ability to act decisively in accordance with GSI values.

The future for the GSI includes several likelihoods: (1) an increase in efforts to co-opt the UN and its proceedings to use language from the Initiative; (2) growing pursuit of hegemony in alternative security areas, such as AI; and (3) continuing mixed results in most multilateral organizations. Further, China’s anti-US rhetoric and intricate involvement in many Asian conflicts threatens easy GSI adoption and implementation.


Timothy Heath:

The Historic Missions of the People’s Liberation Army under Xi Jinping: The Military’s Role in the “New Era”

As China formulates responses to an array of “non-military threats,” the military’s role is transforming into a supporting function. A 2019 defense white paper outlines the new “strategic support” role the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will play in the future, amounting to a shift in its “historic missions” specifying its “formal role in national strategy.” Because the historic missions and their recent shift have not been properly analyzed, the military’s role in national strategy is not fully understood.

Understanding the “Historic Missions”

In the PLA dictionary, the historic missions are “the military’s most important responsibilities and fundamental tasks over a given relatively extended period of time.” As a framework, the PLA’s historic missions help align its purpose of serving the CCP across policy shifts, helping eliminate ambiguity in the policymaking and enforcement process. The missions are made up of four general instructions, with additional required reading, such as study of corresponding official party documents, to fully communicate the substantive policy shift for PLA officers. It is unique in the Chinese state that the PLA’s official purpose is to protect and serve the CCP, not necessarily the citizens. The historic missions therefore aid in this endeavor by dissolving the ambiguities in policymaking and reducing the ability of the PLA to act solely within its own interests; it is therefore a form of institutionalizing control over and providing “transparency” about the PLA’s role to political society.

History of the “Historic Missions”

Both a historic truth and recent political developments explain the origin of the historic missions. First, the military has always been seen as the “ultimate guarantor of CCP rule.” Second, as the Party grew out of the under-institutionalized Mao era and rearticulated its role vis-à-vis the Chinese nation, finding a ‘spot’ for the PLA was difficult. After the Party had framed itself as a national rejuvenating force under Jiang Zemin in the 1990s, Hu Jintao expanded on Jiang's contribution in 2004, when he first expressed the idea of “historic missions” for the PLA. This action gave clarity to the Army’s role in society in the post-Mao political environment.

Xi-era “Historic Missions”

Xi’s initial 2013 defense white paper formulated an outward-looking version of the historic missions, saying that the PLA’s role would encompass enforcing sovereignty and Chinese overseas interests. The 2015 white paper, however, shifted inward, also prescribing a PLA role in supporting domestic and party stability. In 2017, these additions were expanded to include highlighting the PLA’s role in “regional security,” especially through bi- and multi-lateral exercises. Culminating with a 2019 revision, Xi had fully elaborated his historic missions, with the PLA being directed to “provide strategic support” for stability, the CCP, sovereignty, Chinese overseas interests, and “world peace and development.” Note that these directives all involve a degree of non-security or “support” tasks.

Explaining Changes to the “Historic Missions”

First, changes in party leadership help explain shifts in the historic missions. Priorities varied between Hu and Xi, leading to different directives. Second, China’s growing global importance and economic heft have led to a widening of duties to include support functions in non-security arenas while also achieving the goals of becoming a world class military.

With China’s global role quickly evolving, implementation of top-down directives poses a challenge for the PLA, which now not only has to modernize to become a first-rate military, but root out corruption and provide for non-security-related tasks, as well. As China’s power grows, managing the external pressures and keeping the domestic house in order have proved a challenge, with the 2019 historic missions exemplifying this tension for the PLA.


Alicia Garcia Herrero:

China’s Aging Problem Will Be Much More Serious When Urbanization is Completed

China’s growth has slowed over the past 15 years, from a 2010 peak of 10.1% to 6.1% in 2019. Many have posited that the country’s aging population has caused this decline. Contradictorily, however, persistent urbanization and its resultant productivity contributions have offset an aging population’s downward pressure on growth. Thus far, only rural areas have suffered growth declines due to aging, with urbanization keeping the labor supply healthy in the cities until 2035. As a result, aging counts as 1% of the downward pressure on growth over the previous decade. Xi Jinping has therefore geared up the policy machine combating the effects of societal aging by instituting the three-child rule in 2021; encouraging “robotization,” or automation of amenable economic sectors; increasing the availability of pensions; and expanding access to eldercare.

Working-Age Population Trends

China’s birth rate began to decline in 2016, but the share of the working-age population began decreasing much earlier, in 2011. According to the Lewis Model, as the urban labor force continues to see an influx of rural workers, productivity increases; though once this pool of migrating labor dwindles, population decline accelerates and productivity growth becomes more difficult to capture – the point at which the economic ramification of this crisis will truly be felt. Researchers estimate this inflection point will occur in 2035.

Effects on Labor Supply and GDP

Data from the United Nations’ World Population Prospects (WPP) help highlight precisely why 2035 is such an important year for China and its demographics. First, the WPP shows that the demographic dividend inverted in 2017 following a two decade-long downward shift in fertility. Second, with the share of older citizens increasing, the movement of young and working-age people to the cities serves as a doubling factor hurting growth in rural areas. Third, children and 65+ rural dwellers migrated to cities at a lower rate, resulting in overall labor pool growth in cities without the associated youth- and old-age burdens. Finally, China still likely has a fair share of urbanizing momentum left, as well. Currently, 62% of citizens live in urban areas, far below other countries like Japan (90%) and the US (~80%). Analyzing China’s trajectory indicates a possibility it could reach the developed world’s urbanization thresholds by 2035. 

In the 2000s, the demographic dividend brought 0.49% additional year-on-year GDP growth, while subtracting 1% in the 2010s upon a flip to a “demographic burden.” Between 2020 and 2035, however, if the government successfully implements its policy response to demographic changes while encouraging labor supply growth, GDP growth may benefit by 0.4% year-on-year; following the 2035 inflection point, when both population decline takes hold and urban areas have saturated, a 1.36% year-on-year drag on GDP growth is likely. 

Implementing the Beauty Industry’s Purported Utopia? Combating Aging on the State-level

While Dove and L’Oreal might advertise beauty bars and hair products to mitigate the visual effects of aging, the Chinese state hopes to combat societal aging by increasing productivity through the means highly-developed and industrialized countries have tried before: automation through robots. While scholars continue to debate the relationship, labor supply strains often lead to wage increases, leading to the replacing of some jobs by robots, for example. But providing new capital for industrial processes requires taking on debt, which may be difficult in China, due to its current debt burden. Another possibility is the educational and labor quality of each future worker; as fertility declines, it may occur that more educational capital is invested in each child, increasing productivity down the line (though Japan’s case does not support this conclusion). China must also keep in mind changes in savings and consumption levels with an aging population while remaining cognizant of lower productivity in many services subsectors, such as healthcare. It is therefore hard to tell what would be an effective policy.

Contrary to popular belief, demographic decline has not yet been the principal cause of slowing growth in China. Interwoven labor market, urbanization, productivity trends have influenced the GDP growth percentage upwards and, for the next 15 years, will continue contributing to it. China’s experience with demographic change and economic growth indicates a gap in economic literature on the relationship between productivity and aging in an age of rapid urbanization. What is certain, though, is that China will eventually experience a rapid economic “deceleration.”


Quarterly digests compiled by Adam Terenyi.


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