The "Great Resignation" in China: A Thief Inspires the Overworked : Rough Translation A video ricochets across Chinese offices, and a scooter thief becomes an icon for brewing discontent. Why is a thief who says he's tired of working viewed by the Chinese state as such a threat?

Slackers@Work: A Song for the Exhausted

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR.

Sometimes a teacher can tell you something, and you don't hear the sting behind their words until much later. When Aris was growing up in Hubei province in China, her teacher would single her out.

ARIS: My teacher, she would say, you see, Aris was not smart, but her grades were so good. This was because she was hardworking.

WARNER: This was supposed to be praise.

ARIS: She didn't mean to hurt me, but I felt those words really hurt me.

WARNER: The lesson that Aris drew from that was that failure was just one missed alarm clock away. And her mom had an expression.

ARIS: Early birds - early birds have something to eat.

WARNER: The phrase that I know is, the early bird catches the worm.

ARIS: Yeah. Yeah. It's similar.

WARNER: Years later, when Aris would grow up to become a high school teacher herself, she didn't want to shame her students into working hard, but she worried. Her students didn't seem to have that work ethic needed for the grueling high school exams that can decide your future career. Her students were only five years younger than her but already felt like a different generation.

ARIS: When I was a student, I was very obedient, maybe because we have fewer temptations, like mobile phones or video games. They have so much temptations, so they didn't work hard.

WARNER: So Aris gave herself homework. She would play video games...

ARIS: League of Legends - LOL.

WARNER: ...And read the sports pages.

ARIS: Oh, did you know that someone has win the champion?

WARNER: She wanted to motivate her students by connecting with them.

ARIS: So I am interested in everything my students are interested.

WARNER: And then one day, she remembers, the bell rang. The class was still noisy, and she'd asked one boy to sit down and resume studying. But he just looked at her, and he said no and smiled.

ARIS: So I asked to asked him, what was he doing? And then he said (non-English language spoken).

WARNER: And this phrase, he says...

ARIS: I will not study. I will become a boss, and I will not work for others.

WARNER: It's said in an unfamiliar accent.

ARIS: Is not the standard Mandarin.

WARNER: The students tell her, oh, it's a new joke online. And she thinks, OK, if this is something my students are connecting with, then I need to know about it. So that night she looks it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU LIQI: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: And what she finds is this video...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: ...That she'd later learn was causing lots of people in China to rethink all those lessons about working hard that Aris heard as a kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: It's a video of this guy. He is handcuffed to the bars on the wall of a police station somewhere.

WARNER: We first heard this story from NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng.

FENG: Judging by his accent, he's in southern China. His hair is kind of disheveled. His eyes are going all over the place. And it turns out he's jailed because he'd been caught stealing scooters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: It seems to have been filmed on a local television station. And in this video interview, whoever is asking the questions says, why do you keep stealing scooters? Like, can't you get a real job?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And the guy in the video, the guy who's been arrested, says, working in this life is impossible for me. It's impossible for me to work.

WARNER: And this was the phrase...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: ...That Aris first heard from her student.

ARIS: And I saw it, and I realized it was from a thief.

WARNER: A thief with apparently millions of followers across China.

FENG: He's not complaining about a specific job, but he's talking about work in general and the fact that he won't do it at all. He's not suited to it at all. And that was really what struck a chord with people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. That video would ricochet across Chinese worksites and offices. Today in the show, how a scooter thief became an icon for brewing discontent and why some guy saying he just didn't want to work anymore came to be seen by the state as such a threat.

FENG: And he says, my office is filled with police officers.

WARNER: In this story, the government uses surveillance and censorship to try to stamp out burnout. We'll see how that's working out for them - the scooter thief and what he unleashed among Chinese youth, from tech workers to high school students, even to a high school teacher.

ARIS: Oh, he was amazing. He was so brave. But I didn't want to go to prison, so I just work for you today.

WARNER: It's slackers at work after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner.

FENG: Recorder is starting.

WARNER: Here with Emily Feng. Great. So, yeah - so where do you want to start, with a rock show?

FENG: Yeah.

WARNER: To understand why that video came to mean so much in China, we're going to start with a cultural phenomenon known as Sang.

FENG: I actually first noticed Sang because of a bubble tea shop chain. And they specialized in making drinks that had really long and elaborate names that all referenced some universal problem that was very Sang - for example, like, my-ex's-life-is-better-than-mine fruit tea or I've-achieved-absolutely-nothing black tea. And I was discussing it one day with my producer in Beijing, Aowen Cao. And she was like, oh, yeah, Sang. Actually, there's this guy I went to high school with. He started this band called Trip Fuel, and they're all about Sang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LOW ALTITUDE FLOW")

TRIP FUEL: (Singing) Low altitude flow.

WARNER: So you went to the show?

FENG: Yeah, we met them in this live house in Shenzhen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIP FUEL SONG, "A LOW ALTITUDE FLOW")

FENG: So there were probably about 200 people who showed up, which is a good crowd for a Thursday.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And one thing that really struck me is everyone was sitting down at the beginning of the show.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The live house had set up all these chairs lining the perimeter of the room. And people were just kind of plopped there, looking at their phones, sleeping.

WARNER: (Laughter) What?

FENG: A lot of people with their heads on other people's shoulders.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And so I started talking to some of these people - like, why would you come all the way to a rock show, a live house, and then just take a nap?

(Non-English language spoken).

And everyone was like, well, I'm tired.

(Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: It's like a party for exhausted people.

FENG: No, completely. Like, Shenzhen's kind of a special city because it's China's technology hub. It's basically China's Silicon Valley, and all these really hot new startups are there. There's something called 996 in China.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: It's working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. It's technically now illegal. In practice, most tech companies do this, and Shenzhen is notorious for 996.

WARNER: But it turns out that being exhausted, at least in this crowd, it's almost like a membership card in a club known as Sang.

FENG: Sang is an actual Chinese character, which can be combined in various phrases. It just means depressive or tragic - in general, sad. The fact that people feel that their work is pointless. They're simply going through the motions to just get through the day every day at their jobs.

(CHEERING)

FENG: The show slowly picks up. Trip Fuel is the last act to perform. And most of their fans are between the ages of, like, 20 to 30-somethings. A lot of them are working white-collar jobs, which might be prestigious but don't often pay that much in China. And even though labor laws are starting to get a little bit more strict, it's still really common to work overtime unpaid basically every night of the week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LOW ALTITUDE FLOW")

TRIP FUEL: (Singing) Let's go wild and watch your life wasted.

FENG: So they have no personal time of their own. They're often only children, so they've got financial burdens to make sure that they can take care of their older relatives. The band members feel this. You know, they're struggling with the same issues. But I think that's also what connects them to their fans. Their lyrics are about watching your life happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LOW ALTITUDE FLOW")

TRIP FUEL: (Singing) Let's go wild and watch your life wasted.

FENG: Like being a passenger in your own life and watching your dreams slowly die.

(CHEERING)

FENG: So the lead singer of the band - his name is Manager Chen.

WARNER: That's his stage name and his actual job title.

FENG: He's a manager. He manages financial products and derivatives at a provincial bank. Towards the end of their act, he pauses in between two songs, and he says, thank you all for coming to his fans, thank you to the band members, but also thank you to my bank managers for letting me be here. And everyone kind of laughs and applauds because they - like, that's part of a shtick.

WARNER: So a bunch of tech workers nodding off at a math rock show may not seem like a big threat for the Chinese government to stress about. But when we were talking to Aris, the high school teacher, she said she would not go to one of these concerts. She doesn't like what Sang culture represents.

ARIS: Then you are spreading negative energy.

WARNER: Negative energy is something the government has been campaigning against for years. And Aris says there's something shameful about sharing how exhausted you are.

ARIS: When you say that you are tired, it's like, oh, you might be weaker than others or you might not be suitable for the job.

WARNER: Not just the job you're hired for but the bigger job of building China.

ARIS: Like, you could see the faster development of China. And the propeller behind the development is each Chinese people's efforts.

WARNER: It's a principle that was ingrained in Aris since primary school. The new China needs everyone to work hard to build up the country. But though she wasn't admitting it, Aris was really exhausted. As hard-working as she was as a teacher, it wasn't the career she wanted for herself. Her parents had pressed her into getting her teaching degree.

ARIS: Traditionally, it's considered to be a great job for a girl to become a teacher. It means you have more time to take care of your children and your family. Our parents bring us up, so we should be grateful for their efforts. So when they are old, we should also take care of them.

WARNER: Aris had other dreams for what she wanted for her career, but she felt she had a duty to obey her parents.

ARIS: So I tried to be a good teacher, and I am aware that I have to work hard for my students and for my responsibility. And if the bad feelings come, then let it come, and just don't forget to do what I need to do right now.

WARNER: Aris was living with her parents then. Most nights, she'd leave school at 9 p.m., take the bus home and wake up at 6:30 to take the bus back to school. She didn't see any way out, which is why she was so intrigued by that video of the arrested scooter thief being asked by a local journalist, why don't you just get a job?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

ARIS: He just speaks out what everyone wants to do but dares not to.

WARNER: And that video gave Aris a way to talk about those bad feelings in the form of a shared joke.

ARIS: Like, sometimes, when I didn't feel good, I then said, I don't want to work for others today. (Laughter) Like, I said, oh, he was amazing. He was so brave. But I didn't want to go to prison, so I just work for you today.

WARNER: (Laughter) Like, I would follow his example, but I don't want to be in jail, so I'll just...

ARIS: Yeah.

WARNER: ...Keep my job.

ARIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it's, like, a joke for us.

WARNER: A joke that let her talk about these taboo feelings around giving up, being irresponsible. So who was this guy - this scooter thief?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The guy in the video - his name is Zhou Liqi. And when he says this phrase...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Working in this life is impossible for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The only way to live is by stealing things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And besides, I like coming to jail. I've been arrested so many times, going to jail is like coming back home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: His saying, there's no way that I could ever work in this life, just took off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: After the video explodes, it spawns an entire subculture of Zhou Liqi fandom. They splice up Zhou's original interview, and they set it to corny retro music. People pretend to be Zhou, and they riff on his philosophy - people posting rebellious acts that they've done in their daily lives, inciting Zhou Liqi as their inspiration, online forums discussing about how people can best slack off at work while still making it seem like they're doing what they're supposed to be doing. His mugshot - people start pasting his - like, a cartoon of him, saturated so that it looks like that famous poster of Che Guevara, the...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHE GUEVARA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: ...Communist Argentinean guerrilla fighter. He does actually look a little bit like - actually, he looks a lot like Che Guevara. He's got the same kind of, like, peaked eyebrows, dark, long hair, pointy chin. He's got this, like, scruffy good looks thing to him. People start calling him Qie Guevara - qie being the Chinese word for to steal.

WARNER: And meanwhile, Zhou himself is still behind bars.

FENG: He's sitting in jail with no internet, and he has no idea this is happening. He's in there for the fourth time for stealing scooters - surprise, surprise.

WARNER: But in the spring of 2020, he's about to be released.

FENG: A lot of these videos are entitled, like, Zhou Liqi, his - you know, his final day before coming home, or finally, our leader comes back to us.

WARNER: The ironic thing about Zhou becoming a slacker hero for young white-collar workers is that he had started working at a much earlier age than most of his fans had to and in much grittier jobs.

FENG: He was born to a really poor family in rural Guangxi, and he quit school when he was in third grade. He has done construction jobs and some menial jobs, making bricks in various factories across Guangxi province.

WARNER: Do we know why? Why was his family stuck in the bottom?

FENG: Well, so his mother has always had some illness where she's not able to work very regularly. His father is physically very ill so was not able to labor, to go out like most men in the village and do construction work and earn a steady wage. Every time he got out of jail and he went back home, his home was just as run-down as it was before, whereas everyone else in the village was building up their homes and modernizing them. And I think when he says, you know, I don't want to go back home, jail is better, I think he's referring to the fact that he feels a sense of failure that his home, his family has not kept apace to the way the rest of China is developing.

WARNER: Zhou would become an icon for people that wanted to opt out of the rat race. For the real Zhou, it was more like he'd been left behind from China's growth story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Zhou Liqi emerges from prison at 6:30 in the morning on April 18, 2020. To put this in perspective, pandemic lockdowns have only recently ended. Inter-province travel is still heavily restricted. Outside the prison, though, he finds a crowd of fans.

FENG: Reporters and well-wishers waiting outside the prison for him.

WARNER: Also, talent scouts.

FENG: Offering him up to half a million U.S. dollars to be their brand ambassador and to sell products for them online.

WARNER: And the police, who do not like all this attention he is getting one bit.

FENG: They whisk him away. They bring him to the local police station, his hometown.

WARNER: And the police give him a talk. So what is going to happen to the icon now that he's free? When ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION and our new season, At Work. I'm Gregory Warner.

The morning that Zhou is released from prison, the police sit him down at a table in the police station, and they give him a talk - a talk that is immediately posted online with a soundtrack.

FENG: They're like, listen, we know you're a bad guy. You've done a lot of bad things in your life, but we trust that you're going to do the right thing from here on forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: You're going to be a good influence in society, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And he is like, yes, I've learned my lesson. I'm never going to steal scooters again. I just want to live a quiet life and farm.

(CROSSTALK)

WARNER: But immediately, on that first day out, he's being approached by talent scouts who want him to go on videos and hawk products. And they're offering sums of money for one appearance in one video that are astronomically higher than anything Zhou has made in an entire year of labor.

FENG: All these livestreaming companies are like, please, please, like, can you sign up as our brand ambassador? Like, there's literally hundreds of strangers coming to his house, bringing him gifts, expensive gifts, and trying to sign him up for these brand deals. But he tells them no. And he says, nope. I've said it before - I will not work for anyone. Signing a contract means I would become their employee, and that would be eating my own words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And you can hear one reporter asking Zhou, seriously? Are you sure that you're not going to take these deals? Are you going to stick with that decision? Do you even know what livestreaming is? It's actually really lucrative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She's really surprised he's turned these companies down. And that becomes viral, too, because people see that refusal to work for an internet marketing agency as proof that Zhou is sticking to his principles after all these years in prison.

WARNER: And this seals Zhou's reputation as an anti-work icon, and the authorities seem to be nervous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The Chinese ministry comes out and said, Zhou Liqi has been blacklisted. Nobody can ever work with him. He is a bad social influence, and no one should be paying any attention to him. Why are we giving a convicted felon and a thief all of our attention? He's a bad example.

WARNER: Two months go by, and then he opens up his own accounts and posts this video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: It's just him facing the camera, and he says, I apologize. I did some bad things. He says he's learned that there are young people who are copying his behavior and learning from him. And he tells them, don't copy me. Just mind your own business, and live your own life well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He's apologizing to people who have followed him for all these years.

WARNER: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: He's apologizing to his fans.

FENG: Yep. He wants to apologize to his family for not being there for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: In some of the videos, he's apologizing to this woman who he apparently lost, let go, because he wasn't a good person at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: And then he puts out other videos.

FENG: All about, like, studying hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: There's a video where he breaks up a card game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And he walks in, and he grabs the cards, and he throws them to the side. And he said, what are you doing? Yeah, I'm talking to you and you, too. You guys need to work.

WARNER: It's like he's become the productivity police.

FENG: Yeah. You know, there are all these errands that you have to do. You know, you haven't filled up your car with gas. You're really not this type of person. I know you're not this type of person.

WARNER: The question for his fans was, what type of person is Zhou? Is he still the icon of slacking off who turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in brand deals 'cause he did not want to work for others? Or is he this new moralist promoting the status quo? His fans are confused.

FENG: At one point, he even does a livestream - like, an online talk with the local police station - to, like, tell people to behave and be upright citizens.

WARNER: Emily finds herself scrutinizing these work-evangelist videos, trying to figure out, is this the real Zhou, or was there someone just outside the frame of these videos making him say these things?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: And all of a sudden, I learn that he's opened a barbecue joint in his home province, Guangxi.

WARNER: So Zhou has become a boss.

FENG: Yeah. We just called him, his restaurant, and he's there every night, like, around 8 p.m. onwards, but he won't do phone interviews. Apparently, a lot of people call the restaurant asking to talk to him over the phone. So his employees were like, nope, you just got to come here. You're very welcome to hang out with him as long as you buy our food.

WARNER: So Emily and Aowen fly down to the province of Guangxi. They check into a hotel, not really knowing what version of Zhou they're going to meet that night. Will he be the slacker hero of old or this virtuous Zhou of late? And then they get to the restaurant.

FENG: I immediately knew it was his restaurant because there was a giant picture of his face dressed up as Che Guevara in the front.

Let's order dinner. (Non-English language spoken).

So it's, like, fluorescently lit, and it's covered with posters with slogans like, you know, all there is to life is a good beer and a good barbecue, and puns about drinking, essentially. I quickly notice it is all men - like, we're the only women in this two-floor restaurant. And there's shouting, and there's people, like, chugging beers. It's like a - it's tables and tables of men who are taking off their shirts because they're sweating from eating so much. And it's a game to just rack up as many empty beer bottles as possible. We asked the waiter, you know, like, is Zhou here? Is Mr. Zhou - we call him boss Zhou - is boss Zhou here? - (Non-English language spoken). And I think she immediately mistakes us for, like, some, like, ditzy floofs (ph) who are here to get an autograph or something. It happens a lot. Fans still come to the restaurant, and he is mobbed on the regular by people who want to take selfies with him.

WARNER: They meet some of these fans, and they learn that, despite Zhou's apology videos and all his hard work videos that he did after prison, the fans are here because of his original video.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: That is what he is still famous for.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: So Emily and Aowen sit down to dinner.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: They talk to more fans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: They wait some more.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIP FUEL SONG, "CLOUD PLAINS ON DARJEELING")

AOWEN CAO, BYLINE: No close time. This is - it's a new restaurant.

FENG: Aowen and I just kind of sat there until midnight, hoping that boss Zhou would show up. He never did. We were exhausted from having traveled down there early that morning. We actually left him a note, explaining that we were reporters from Beijing and we wanted to interview him for a podcast.

WARNER: So they go back to their hotel. And then late that night, they hear a knock at their hotel room door. It's the police.

FENG: We got to see your passport for COVID prevention reasons.

I don't know why the police would have to come by to check your documents at 2 a.m. Weird - I gave my passport and you scanned it and sent a picture to the police when I checked in, per Chinese law. Why do you got to see my actual passport? I mean, it just went on and on in circles, and you eventually give it to them, but I realized that they probably had been keeping tabs on us.

WARNER: The next night, they're back at the barbecue joint.

FENG: And we walked up to his office, knocked on his door, hoping that he would be there, and indeed he was.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIP FUEL SONG, "CLOUD PLAINS ON DARJEELING")

FENG: Zhou Liqi opens the door, and he looks exactly like how he looked in all these videos that I had watched of him - like, he's got the long, dark hair. He's got the dark eyebrows. But he looks really stressed. He's super serious. And he immediately greets us and says, what can I do for you guys?

WARNER: When ROUGH TRANSLATION returns, it's boss Zhou.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIP FUEL SONG, "CLOUD PLAINS ON DARJEELING")

WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Back to our story with Emily Feng and the barbecue joint - Zhou has finally shown up for his interview, but something isn't right.

FENG: We explain who we are, and he brings us to another side room. And he says, OK, OK, I've actually got a really important meeting in my office right now. We peek in, and we see, like, 10 to 12 guys. I thought he was in a business meeting. So we say, no problem, do your meeting. We'll be outside having dinner. Meet us afterwards, and we'll talk.

Like, what are some of the things on the menu?

CAO: Barbecue squid?

FENG: He comes out about half an hour later looking even more harried, even more stressed. And he says, my office is filled with police officers. They suddenly came by to do a fire inspection of the restaurant. And then, before that, I got this random call from someone who said he worked in state security - so this is, like, China's version between the CIA and FBI - saying two reporters from Beijing were going to come down and try to interview me, and that I was supposed to refuse at all costs. And as he's saying this, he sits down and he gets a phone call on his phone.

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And it's from the same state security guy, and I can hear him over the speaker on Zhou's phone, asking, where are you? What are you doing right now? Who are you talking to? Are you in the restaurant? And Zhou is completely bewildered. He doesn't know what's going on. He's like, yes, yes, yes. I'm in the restaurant. Where else would I be? It's my working hours.

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: So we chat for a little bit. We try to make small talk. He's still trying to be nice, and this is what kind of breaks my heart. He's trying to be a good host. He asks us if we have a good time. He really apologizes that he can't, like, sit down and have a proper drink with us. At this point, he goes back to his office.

ZHOU: (Non-English language spoken).

(CROSSTALK)

FENG: You know, after he left, more people started coming in. They're dressed in all black. They're dressed in windbreakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: The new diners that came in didn't order anything - anything alcoholic to drink, which stands out when you've got tables full of men pounding back liters of beer every few minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: I realize that all the people sitting around us are watching us quite closely. One of them begins filming us with his cellphone camera. So I think that, yeah, there were a number of plainclothes police in the restaurant with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: The police, of course, were there because Emily was there. They don't want Zhou telling her his story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: But later, when Emily and Aowen get back to Beijing, they'll realize that the censorship - it goes deeper.

FENG: A lot of the tribute videos that people had made in 2016, 2017...

(SOUNDBITE OF WHOOSHING)

FENG: ...Those had been taken down.

WARNER: Zhou's original viral video is still up, but all of the creative sabotage videos, a lot of the tributes to his slackerdom (ph), the empowered office workers praising him - they won't find any of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHOOSHING)

WARNER: And so this meeting - it's as close as they'll get to Zhou.

FENG: At the very end, he came out one last time. There was a man - I guess a plainclothes officer - kind of holding him by the elbow. I think they wanted to do it to show that, like, Zhou's fine. He's out and about. He's totally normal. This is a totally regular evening for him.

CAO: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: My producer wants to take a picture with Zhou. And he, like, normally would - and he's said on interviews before - always takes pictures with fans, but he hesitates. And he doesn't want to say no, but, like, Aowen has to ask several times. And finally, he's like, sure, OK.

CAO: He has changed a lot. He was so carefree when he was - like, several years ago.

FENG: We get out of the restaurant, and she was like, that's a completely different guy from the Zhou Liqi of the videos that I've watched.

CAO: The way he spoke was so (non-English language spoken) - yeah, (non-English language spoken). He was so stressful now and suddenly a very grown-up man.

FENG: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

FENG: Ironically, like, he may have been more free to do whatever he wanted back when he was a scooter thief than now.

WARNER: So why is all of this extra scrutiny on Zhou happening now?

FENG: All of this is playing out in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, and China wants to put on this image that it's controlled the pandemic, its economy has bounced back.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN EMERY'S "WINNER'S CIRCLE")

FENG: And to some extent, it has, but the country is still hurting. I mean, a lot of people are still out of jobs. And so this is the time when the local government, the central government, they need people to step up. They need people to start having more babies and producing the future generation of workers. They need people to work more. They need people to manufacture more goods they can export to the U.S. They need people to be paying their taxes. I mean, the engine that is the Chinese economy needs to be running more efficiently than ever. And so people like Zhou Liqi, I think that feels particularly dangerous now.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN EMERY'S "WINNER'S CIRCLE")

ARIS: You will never know what might happen to you next moment.

WARNER: Aris spent lockdown in her own apartment. She'd moved away from her parents. And for the first time, she had lots of time alone to think.

ARIS: So if I die right now, I would feel very angry because I didn't live for Aris right now.

WARNER: She thought about the rules of society, how so few of them made sense. She wanted to learn the logic behind those rules, and that turned into a desire to study law, which is what she decided to do.

ARIS: I decided to quit.

WARNER: To leave teaching and enroll in law school.

ARIS: I submitted my letter of quit in August.

WARNER: But she wasn't going to tell her parents - or not yet.

ARIS: When I am admitted, I will tell them. That's my plan.

WARNER: You'll get into law school, and that's when you'll call them up and say...

ARIS: Yeah.

WARNER: What made this plan more complicated was that she'd signed a contract when she started teaching school that she'd teach for a minimum of six years or pay a fine. She saved up enough to pay the fine, but when she called the school and told them this, they called her parents. She thinks they wanted her parents to talk her out of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: But when she came home to face her parents' wrath, she realized the situation at home was worse than she thought. Her mom told her that she had lost the equivalent of $50,000 gambling. And she told her her father didn't know any of this. She was afraid they might get divorced unless Aris could do something to help them.

ARIS: A huge sum of money.

WARNER: Did you have that kind of money to be able to pay it off?

ARIS: I could help her pay the debt, but it meant I will sacrifice my own plan. Yeah, it means moving back home, going back to my job. And, I mean, I would have another - I mean, sometimes the courage comes suddenly. And I'm not sure whether I will have another time of bravery. I mean, it's like, I am already - I'm already 26.

WARNER: This felt like her one shot to change her career and change her life. But did that mean becoming the kind of person who failed to help her family?

ARIS: It's like, if I have trouble, if I owed others so much money, my parents will spare no efforts to pay them off for me. So in the same way, I should do the same.

WARNER: I asked Aris if, in these tough moments, she ever thought about Zhou, the scooter thief. And she said no, but Zhou's message had continued to be a guiding influence on her decisions in a way that couldn't really be constrained by any censorship. Though the government may have silenced Zhou and his restaurant, his viral video had given her a point of connection with her students and allowed her to really talk to them in the way that she'd always hoped to do as a teacher.

ARIS: We have many conversations, and they would share me with their dreams. And I felt that these students were able to pursue their dreams. And I also told them that I envied them because they could make their own decision, their choices. Then my students told me that I could also be myself, and they told me that the most important thing is to be happy. I'm sorry. I'm a little - I just feel very moved when I think of what my students told me. Then I just realized that all my life choices were made by others. Maybe I could forgive or I could understand why this happened, but now I cannot forgive myself anymore. I think if I continue to make the choice that others made for me, it means that I was not responsible for my own life. So I think I should be brave for a time. I mean I should live for myself.

WARNER: So when Aris thought about how to help her mom get out of this debt and what it meant for her to put her parents first, she thought about what her students told her.

ARIS: But finally, I made an irresponsible choice (laughter).

WARNER: She's decided to just pay 10% of her mom's debt.

ARIS: Like, a small help.

WARNER: And she's moved a second time. She's not telling her parents her new address.

ARIS: I think my parents also need to improve themselves. I mean, they also need to learn to be responsible for themselves.

WARNER: Aris is using her savings to study for law school. And lately, she's been thinking a lot about that expression...

ARIS: Early birds have something to eat.

WARNER: ...That her mom always said.

ARIS: I think this phrase is telling people that you have to suffer pain. Like, if you don't get up early, you will have no worms. But who told you that birds can only eat worms? There are so many different kinds of worms in this world. Some worms may get out in the morning, but some may get out at night, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIP FUEL SONG, "THE AIRCRAFT THIEF")

WARNER: Just this march, a National People's Congress delegate - that's China's parliament - suggested passing laws to guard against four subcultures that have had, quote, "a corroding effect on the values of young people" - LGBT culture, study abroad programs, fan culture and Sang culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIP FUEL SONG, "THE AIRCRAFT THIEF")

WARNER: Incidentally, by the way, 3 of those 4 have been the subject of ROUGH TRANSLATION podcast episodes. Next week on At Work, we go from state-sponsored exhaustion to state-mandated rest.

MARTIN: I mean, people are just simply happier to take a break, some downtime during the workday. It's good for their well-being.

KAITLIN: I hear that. I just don't buy it.

WARNER: What happens when you live in a country where it is illegal to work through your lunch break?

KAITLIN: I come from the U.S., and I love a productive lunch.

WARNER: That's next week on our series At Work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE AIRCRAFT THIEF")

TRIP FUEL: (Singing) I tried to steal an aircraft from you.

WARNER: This episode was produced by Justine Yan with help from Adelina Lancianese. Our editor and senior supervising producer is Bruce Auster. Emily Feng and Aowen Cao reported from China - additional reporting by Justine Yan. The ROUGH TRANSLATION team includes Luis Trelles, Pablo Arguelles and Tessa Paoli. Emily Bogle is our visuals editor. Our supervising producer is Liana Simstrom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIP FUEL SONG, "THE AIRCRAFT THIEF")

WARNER: Editorial guidance by Jingnan Huo, Jess Jiang, Robert Krulwich, Sana Krasikov and Shiqi Lin. John Ellis composed our theme music. Additional music by FirstCom Music and Audio Network. Mastering by Josh Newell. Fact-checking by Jane Gilvin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE AIRCRAFT THIEF")

TRIP FUEL: (Singing) I don't know where to go.

WARNER: Thanks to NPR's Micah Ratner and Tony Cavin, chief international editor Didi Schanche and senior vice president for programming Anya Grundmann. The music you're listening to right now is Trip Fuel from their album "Departure." We used their tracks throughout the episode as well. Big thanks to Wild Records and the whole band and especially to Manager Chen for taking the time off work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner, back next week with more At Work on ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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