Losers’ culture

Just what makes a “diaosi”?

A woman uses a computer in an internet cafe in Shanghai

So-called diaosi get a lot of their entertainment from the internet

Oh, to be twenty-something and living in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The opportunities must be endless, right?

Not according to the hundreds of millions of young Chinese who regularly refer to themselves as diaosi or “losers”. For them life is a struggle: work and family make constant demands, and no matter how much they earn, it is not enough to buy a home or impress a partner.

“Love is a luxury for me,” wrote one self-proclaimed diaosi on weibo last week. Another lamented: “Shopping online on Singles’ Day. I so wish I was a tuhao (nouveau riche) but really I am a diaosi.”

So are these people really failures or is it more that younger Chinese are struggling with older definitions of success? The answer depends on who you ask. According to a new survey by Peking University’s market research department, many in the category are genuinely stuck on the lower rungs of China’s new social and economic ladder.

Titled “Living Conditions of the Diaosi”, the survey compiled answers from 130,000 self-proclaimed losers and represents the most thorough investigation of this sub-group so far.

The picture it paints is as follows: Diaosi are generally between 21 and 30 years-old and earn an average of Rmb2,900 ($473.55) a month, at least half of which is sent home to support their parents. Half of them are single and most were educated to high-school or vocational college level.

They spend about Rmb40 a day feeding themselves and they buy most of their clothes online. Rent comes in at less than Rmb500 a month and the internet is their main source of entertainment.

People working in agriculture are most likely to refer to themselves as diaosi.

About 70% of the respondents say they are unhappy and 30% worry they are depressed or suffering from some other form of mental illness.

Many of those calling themselves diaosi are probably feeling a little down about life but not all are bonafide diaosi, it would seem. For instance, a survey by online gaming company Giant last year found that not everyone who uses the expression – which stems from a term linked to the male genitalia – is in such dire financial straits. According to its survey research, men earning around Rmb7,000 and women earning about Rmb5,000 a month were most likely to call themselves diaosi, but some people earning over Rmb20,000 a month were also using the term. IT workers and people working in the media were also more likely to refer to themselves as diaosi versus those in other professions.

Where the two surveys really diverge, however, is in their conclusions.“The overarching feature of the diaosi class is that they are poor: they have no savings and buying a house or a car is beyond a dream for them,” the Peking University survey suggested. But the Giant survey took the view that many diaosi do have disposable income because they have reasonable wages but have rejected the idea of saving for a house.

“Those who identify as part of the diaosi subculture have gradually become a unique consumer group. They have strong purchasing power and rational consumption attitudes. The concept of pursuing the ‘high-end, powerful, and upscale’ is already past; now we must direct our attention toward the diaosi concepts of ‘quality, thoughtfulness, and creativity’,” it suggested.

Whatever the case, the diverse interpretation of the term is interesting in itself. And as both surveys point out, a term that started out as an insult has been adopted by a broad group of people who feel excluded in some way. Thus talk about the diaosi is really an expression of China’s growing inequality.

Peking University and Giant agreed on another thing too: civil servants and people working for state-owned enterprises don’t call themselves diaosi.

However, with Xi Jinping’s ongoing crackdown on graft in the state sector, some of this group may soon feel a lot more diaosi, especially if they are forced to live only on their official salaries in future…

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