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Involution: A hot buzzword that reveals the essence of two trending topics in China

Involution(内卷), a term coined by anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser, is used to describes a culture that cannot (or does not) adapt and or expand its economy but continues to develop only in the direction of internal complexity and inefficiency. It is initiated to describe a process of inward over-elaboration in agricultural development, where population growth did not result in growth in productivity or a more advanced economic model.

Currently, this technical term is becoming one of the most popular buzzwords in China, due to the increasing society competition. It invisibly conveys a general feeling of defeat, when people find out the purpose of a competition is to eliminate rivals through a zero-sum game.

A vivid example of involution is that when the size of a cake is remaining unchanged, not in proportion to the productivity growth, the limited profit will lead to a rat race.

Involution is frequently used by middle-class people orally as a concise explanation of career failures, unemployment, complicated and ambiguous enterprise culture&network, and ironic social phenomenon captured in China's fiercely competitive society. With the most trending topics crashing into people's life, involution has been perfectly reflected.

Trending Topic 1: The fellowship of Pan&Ga (潘嘎之交)

"The fellowship of Pan&Ga" is a new-created buzzword derived from "involution". It is a concrete example of "Involution" taking place in the sector of live streaming. This adapted idiom is related to a funny and hilarious story between a veteran and nation-widely known actor, Pan Changjiang, and a young action star, Xie Mengwei, who was early famous for his boy scout TV drama at Xie’s young age. Instead of calling Xie’s full name, people prefer to call him Ga Zi because of the impressive role that Xie portrayed in the classic drama.

Photo 1: Actor Xie Mengwei and his classic role Ga zi

The story starts when Ga decided to follow the trend of live commerce, as Ga found it hard to break through himself in the movie industry. By helping merchants to sell their products online, Ga earned lucrative profits at the beginning but later received complaints from the buyers because of fake products that he unconsciously endorsed. Ga was torn between his live stream career and the sales activities until one day he made a live video connection with his senior, Pan, who reproached Ga and solicitously advised him should give up commercial activities and return to the nature of the live stream——doing the meaningful contents that he and his audience enjoy. Pan pointed out that product promotion is a risky activity since Ga has less experience and there are many commercial traps which he cannot even prevent. Pan said, "you can have 100% control of your channel only if you don't promote any products on your channel". Been moved by Pan's teaching, Ga made up his mind and gave up doing any advertising campaign on his live stream channel, focusing on making his favorite fitness training content.

Photo 2: Xie Mengwei and Pan Changjiang in a video coonection

It should rather be a normal story but, out of everyone's expectation, it was propelled to the "top heat" on social media because people found Pan is doing live commerce shortly after his conversation with Ga. And some wine products he endorsed are also accused of fraud. The reversal is absurd and it amused many internet users. They are asking Ga to repeat what Pan said before to save Pan's public image.

"I can only mind my own business and be responsible for myself," Ga responded clearly to that huge public requesting, but he cannot stop laughing while thinking of what Pan did to him and the crisis of confidence that Pan is experiencing.

Many said Pan was asking his rival to quit tactfully before he enters the highly competitive and complex live commerce market. His funny tactic was given a name by the audience as "The fellowship of Pan&Ga". And it is seen as the most entertaining show caused by the market involution.

Trending Topic 2: Anti-involution

"Anti-involution(反内卷)" is also a derivation from involution. It comes with another heated story at the same time as the former one. Vladislav Ivanov, a 27-year-old part-time model from Russia, was becoming a mental leader of "Anti-involution" overnight in China.

Photo 3: Produce Camp 2021, a show produced by Tencent Video

Vladislav Ivanov was recruited in a TV show called Produce Camp 2021 (a boyband competition show), working as a translator but invited by the producers to sign up as a contestant. The program concept, which originated in Korea, pits young performers against each other to train and eventually form an 11-member international boyband, chosen by a voting public.

Ivanov didn't take it seriously as he firmly believed that he is not a talented person in both singing and dancing. And he thought he will be voted out very soon. Thus, he deliberately performed poorly and indifferently while others were striving to show their best on the stage.

To his surprise, his weariness to the competitive stage and cold persona won large voting. Thousands of hundreds of fans celebrated him as an icon of “Sang culture(丧文化)” (a Chinese millennial concept of having a defeatist and pressimistic attitude toward life). The judges also supported him for he is the most authentic person on the stage and urged audiences to vote him in.

Photo 4: Vladislav Ivanov is using stage name Lelush

Ivanov was unable to leave the show of his own accord as he had signed a contract which stipulated he would have to pay a fine if he breached it. Ivanov begged for leaving the stage and getting off work in the show, but he failed. His request was respected until the final stage round.

Even it is not his intention to make it, his experience still has resonated with many audiences for he insists to live out himself all the way.

Ivanov's story was soon applied as a real case in the philosophy class at Beijing Normal University. Zhang Chengyu, a liberal sociologist shared that, "sometimes you just don't have a choice because life is cruel and involution is truly happening in some sectors. You have to keep competing and proving your ability all the time to survive at your job when labor capital is sufficient but work opportunities are less. (whether individuals or entities)"

996, a typical Chinese enterprise culture, can be a good example there. The three digits describe a punishing schedule of 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., six days a week, often with no extra pay. It was brought to 9126 (a punishing schedule of 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., six days a week.) , or 007 (0 a.m. to 0 a.m., seven days a week) when involution is intensified. Companies always believe that the more they pay, the more benefits (profits, business opportunities, industrial leadership, market shares) they gain than their rivals.

Photo 5: A student was using laptop to study while riding bike in Tsinghua University

"It has exhausted everyone, many expect to jump out of the loop, but it is not easy. Ivanov did, even accidentally, and he made his success without joining the competition like other contestants did. The audiences see it as a sign of anti-involution, and they are not just voting for him, but voting against the unfair involution in the society." Zhang said.

Zhang Jin, a social media manager who used to work at well-known brand doing cross-border e-commerce), gave her opinion. "Actually, you can also learn something from Ivanov's story. When involution is inevitable, changing a career might be a good decision. It's like what Ivanov did. He was a little-known model, but now he is a superstar in China and his own country."

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