‘Let things get to their worst’ — phrase of the week

Society & Culture

The pressures of life, work, and the economy on young people are intense in China. And there's a new phrase to describe how people feel about it.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Our phrase of the week is: Let things get to their worst (摆烂 bǎi làn).


Tencent Holdings founder Pony Ma (马化腾 Mǎ Huàténg) has sparked online debate about China’s economic difficulties caused by its dynamic zero-COVID policies. He shared an article titled “Nobody cares about the economy except for Hu Xijin” (除了胡锡进,已经没有人关心经济了) in a short post on his WeChat feed last week.

The full post:

The way some netizens care about the economy is: Companies can go bust, but they cannot lay staff off; companies can go bankrupt, but they cannot ask their staff to work overtime. And regarding the question, what is the Chinese economy? They don’t understand and they don’t care. The only thing they care about is so-called hard tech and chips. As for food, clothing, housing, and transportation, this is too basic and not important to them.

Of course, if they order takeout and it’s 10 minutes late, they have no problem with having a go at the delivery driver, and can be more ruthless than anyone in their criticism.


There is a mix of opinions shared by netizens on social media, including this comment, which is broadly in support of Ma:

He really does have a point. If companies can’t lay people off or cut their salaries, the only other option is to go bust. We let things get to their worst, and live off a basic allowance. Will the people commenting here really be able to keep their jobs?


quèshí jiùshì zhème gè dàolǐ, bù ràng cáiyuán bù ràng jiàng xīn, nà jiù zhǐ néng pòchǎnle, dàjiā yì qǐ bǎi làn yīqǐ chī dī bǎo, nándào pínglùn qū de rén de gōngzuò jiù néng bǎozhù ma?


Let things get to their worst literally translates as “put” (摆 bǎi) and “rot” (烂 làn), or let it rot.

It’s an internet phrase that came into use last year, mostly used by young people to express their dissatisfaction or despair with the pressures of life in China, along with other buzzwords from 2021 like lying flat (躺平 tǎng píng) and involution (内卷 nèi juǎn).

Bai lan is originally a basketball phrase, meaning to intentionally lose a game to get a lower ranking in the following season and be pitted against easier opponents. It’s now in mainstream use and means something like it’s gotten so bad that there’s no way back, so just let it run its course, or let it rot.

It can also mean to actively embrace a deteriorating situation, rather than trying to turn it around.

English phrases with a similar meaning are let things go to shit and to throw in the towel.

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Andrew Methven