When Ding Xuan spotted an opportunity to snap up a two-bedroom flat for less than her previous year’s rent, she bought it over the phone as quickly as possible.

But the moment she hung up, she couldn’t remember where exactly it was.

“It only came to me later that I should go and have a look at the place before actually moving there,” she said of her new home in Linghai, in China’s north.

Before the move 440 kilometres north-east from her rental in Beijing, Ms Ding had been paying $9,000 a year for a room in a shared flat.

Ms Ding is a social media producer, and like many in China, her employer hasn’t been doing well since COVID.

When her hours were reduced, she decided to move to somewhere cheaper.

She found the right place online.

“It was less than 30,000 yuan ($6,400) for an apartment — cheaper than renting for one year in Beijing,” she told the ABC.

desk and bookshelves in a room

Ms Ding bought a place for less than the annual rent of this room in Beijing.(Supplied)

‘Lying flat’ in Linghai

With average prices for existing properties in Beijing still more than $12,724 a square metre in an economic downturn, Ms Ding felt she could finally enjoy her life — and “lying flat” — in Linghai.

Lying flat was a buzzword created by young Chinese who have opted out of the rat race due to increasing social anxiety and pressure.

According to an online survey of 60,000 people aged 18–35 in 2023, about 12.8 per cent said they wanted to lie flat and 28.5 per cent of respondents said they wanted to lie flat but couldn’t manage it.

In recent years, many young people — especially women — who share Ms Ding’s dream of lying flat are seeking cheap properties in cities like Linghai.

Ms Ding said she wanted to move to Linghai and lie flat because she didn’t want to be constantly exhausted.

Not everyone understood her choice.

“In the eyes of those who don’t like it, it’s as if it’s illegal,” she told the ABC.

A look of an open field from Ms Ding's apartment window

Ms Ding’s new view in Ling Hai — a far cry from the bustling megacity Beijing.(Supplied)

Ms Ding now works only 2 to 3 hours about three days a week.

Her income is not stable.

But she enjoys a way of life that allows her to go to the park after work.

“If I only eat and sleep, I’ll probably be able to live on 500 yuan ($107) a month,” she explained.

“I can lie flat for 5 or 6 years — so what’s there to worry about? There’s not just one way to live.”

New Chinese aprtments

Older homes in aging cities often far cheaper than a new build.(Reuters)

Ms Ding also runs a social media account about her life in Linghai and more than 80 per cent of her followers are female.

“Women face a glass ceiling at work. When they turn 30, if you say you want to get married or have a child, you will be discriminated against in the job market,” Ms Ding said.

“Compared to the rat race and discrimination in big cities, I think getting a place in a smaller city is a more comfortable way of living.”

Property, marriage and children too expensive

Linghai is an old industrial city that’s aging rapidly and has a population of about 550,000.

But, it is only about three hours to Beijing on one of China’s high-speed trains.

There are a few other former industrial cities that have what might seem to be surreal property prices.


Fuxin, Hegang, Gejiu and Qianjiang, are all options for young people who want to break free from the pressure and high cost of living in China’s megacities.

A one-bedroom apartment in Hegang can cost as little as $3,000, according to local reports.

Susu, 26, used to run an online business in Shanghai, but she was able to buy a two-bedroom apartment in Fuxin, for about $8,600.

“I want to become a winner in life, raising my dog and cat,” she said.

Susu doesn’t have any income at the moment, but she isn’t worried.

“It’s really cheap living here.1,000 yuan ($211) is enough for a month,” she told the ABC.

Susu believes that young people like her are lying flat because things like owning a property, getting married and giving birth to a child are too costly.

Susu's room

Susu has recently quit her job and moved to her new place.(Supplied)

Rebels with a cause

Wendy Su, associate professor in media and cultural studies at the University of California Riverside, has researched the Chinese concept of lying flat.

Dr Su said it was a form of nonviolent rebellion.

She suggested young people were trying to find their way out of social issues like “the slow-down of the economy, the shrinking job market, the never-ending sky-rocketing housing prices and the middle-income trap”.

On a deeper level, Dr Su believes social inequality and rigid hierarchies have also added to young people’s sense of unfairness and insecurity.

The University of Sydney’s Chen Minglu researches social and political change in China.

A woman in black clothes.

Chen Minglu says many young people face a not-very-bright present — not to say future.(Supplied: Minglu Cheng)

Dr Chen said many young people entered the job market at a time when China’s economic growth had slowed significantly.

“They face a not-very-bright present — not to say future. And China’s youth unemployment rate is very high,” she told the ABC.

Independent documentary director Xiaoyue Qin has filmed the lives of young migrants who live in Hegang.

The northern industrial city was long predicted to be at risk of becoming a ghost city.

It’s long been neglected and its population has shrunken quickly.

In recent years, it has welcomed a surge of young residents who came for the super cheap property prices and slower lifestyle.

“Hegang is known as a byword for lying-flat now,” Ms Qin said.

Ms Qin said lying flat was not a negative, but an intuitive and realistic way of living.

“Places like Hegang provide people with a new life,” Ms Qin said.

“Hegang is more like a harbour for young people.”

In her documentary, a couple moved to Hegang after the wife was diagnosed with depression.

“Winter in Hegang is very cold, but the living cost is low and it’s very easy to be happy here,” Ms Qin said.

Lying flat may not be a choice, but a position young people were forced into, Dr Chen suggested.

“Moving to a smaller city, which has a lower cost of living, maybe a less stressful lifestyle,” she said.

“But I feel it is really about how to cope with the situation that young people find it very hard to compete in this tough job market.”

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