Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer, editor and consultant.
We’ve all taken a meandering route to the coffee machine or tilted our screens away from colleagues to look at NSFW content. But in China recently, a group of young workers have been turning procrastination into an art form.
Last year, a user on social media platform Weibo found viral fame with a slackers’ manifesto. It urged employees who’d seen their bosses get a new car three times in the past year to stop worrying about petty expenses for work supplies, to make sure they no longer voluntarily undertook overtime, and encouraged them to ‘answer work questionnaires less and make love more’. The post ended with a playful nod to a familiar call: ‘Workers of the world, unite to touch fish... What we’ll break is our chains, and what we’ll gain is time to chill out after work.’
The term ‘touching fish’ has since taken off in China as slang for maximising the opportunity to do the bare minimum. The phrase is a spin on an old proverb about making the most of a crisis in order to benefit personally: ‘muddy waters make it easy to catch fish’. Hashtags related to ‘touching fish’ have since racked up hundreds of thousands of views, with young workers eagerly swapping tips on how to slack off.
But there’s more going on here than sheer laziness. Disillusionment with work has been growing among young people in China for some time now, accelerated by the reassessment of personal priorities triggered by Covid-19.
Pushback against inflexible office policies and expectations of overwork have been making headlines for a couple of years. And more recently a series of incidents have highlighted gruelling schedules and unreasonable expectations in China’s workplaces, such as accusations that a major firm had installed stop clocks in its toilets to discourage ‘time-wasting’.
‘A major firm had installed stop clocks in its toilets to discourage “time-wasting”.’
Whistle-blowers have also come forward to tell their damning stories to an eager press, and last year online sales company Pinduoduo became engulfed in scandal when a young woman collapsed and died one night, reportedly from overwork.
Hashtags related to overwork now regularly spring up on Weibo and the like, where a recent debate about ‘why young people don’t like doing overtime’ has picked up almost 6 million views and tens of thousands of comments. Headlines about deaths from overwork have combined with an understandable re-examination of personal priorities in the wake of the pandemic to mean that young Chinese people are increasingly looking for a better work-life balance.
Of course, these people need to be fortunate enough to be employed in the first place, and the practice is also partly a result of more comfortable standards of living for much of China’s population compared with just three decades ago, especially in its largest cities. But it’s also clear that young people are increasingly questioning the value of time spent in the office. And it points to issues the rest of the world may have to deal with once office work is possible again: if companies fail to take into account the importance of work-life balance, they may find we all start touching fish.