Global Times Mobile

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Some 2,000 young people working in China's four tier-one cities were recently surveyed; the results revealed a paradoxical disconnect between migrants and their new homes. The results came across as surprising to many: how could 85 percent of the respondents claim that they don't feel a sense of belonging in the big cities they had moved to for work?

Detachment and alienation are inherently human problems, with root causes beyond socioeconomic aspects of life such as "having an urban hukou (a residence permit to access social services, which are very difficult for rural migrants to obtain)" or "owning an apartment (which usually translates to having a family)."

I believe these findings, along with most of my observations and side-readings, make apparent a general issue that is bestowed upon the modern Chinese society - loneliness. A number of sociological graphics on this topic indicate a negative trend in social bonds, in line with a positive trend with the general economy of the Middle Kingdom since the 1980s.

Is modernization the culprit? Well, not necessarily nor completely, but I would argue it indeed has a lot to do with it, especially in subtle ways. Consider China's current craze of livestreaming. The Economist calls it "… a new way of bringing color to dreary lives," where random folks (mostly female) simply get in front of a Webcam all day long while chatting with followers (who can number in the millions).

Using Kuaishou, a Chinese livestreaming mobile application, Webcasters are broadcast to an audience of fellow countrymen, who collectively have branded themselves as diaosi (locals who mockingly identify themselves as losers with no social life and trapped in dead-end occupations). The essence of this craze is that this platform allows millions of watchers of these "self-shows" to have a sort of social interaction that is rather lacking in their own lives.

I mentioned this trend to a rather intellectual friend of mine and he came up with a succulent metaphor for it: the consumption of these daily livestreaming shows can be compared to recooking the same meal over and over every day despite its increasing blandness; it is just a practical way to do away with hunger. "Hunger" in this case translates to alienation, tying the issue back to the results of the previously mentioned urban survey.

Given that such a significant number of people tend to satisfy their social needs through virtual life, they can now "skip a meal" when it comes to opportunities to bond with the people actually surrounding them. It is just less of a hassle and also much less riskier (no chance of losing face or being in awkward dispositions) to use Kuaishou than to make any effort to hold up a decent real-life conversation with others.

My argument here does not aim to bash technology for yet another societal conundrum. I am rather more interested in questioning the point where the practicality of technology ends, and its tendency to over-simplify our lives begins. Loneliness is not new to the modern Chinese society, given the fact that the proliferation of high-rise housing projects has created isolated circles of mutually cut-off families.

The difference here is that such developments were collateral damage of grander schemes, whereas livestreaming apps simply do not achieve anything more than serving as a virtual get-together. As an extreme yet still illustrative case, it was recently reported that a local singer felt so isolated after becoming "Internet famous" that he simply could not bring himself to ride the subway or be near any crowds. He "became frightened of people and could no longer interact in society."

Are all diaosi who watch livestreaming lonely or social outcasts? No; many of the watchers surely are sociable individuals. Are livestreamers conscious manipulators of social threads? Also no, as most do it for a living without thinking much about the consequences. But it is important to realize that one can only skip well-balanced, nutritious meals so much before our bodies shut down.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.