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Rise of ‘Emotional Theft’: How Chinese Youth Are Redefining Privacy

Daniel Kim Views  

This image was generated using the Flamel AI Image Generator—tool provided by Smoretalk.

A recent phenomenon called “tou gan” or “emotional theft” is emerging among young Chinese (Gen Z), who keep their private lives hidden from even parents and friends, as reported by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on the 30th of last month.

According to SCMP, Tou gan in Chinese means emotional theft. These individuals create social media accounts only they can see, do not disclose their exact earnings to their parents, and if they are a cohabiting couple, they are known to use separate rooms. In China, it’s almost unthinkable not to tell your parents exactly how much money you make, SCMP explains.

SCMP analyzed this behavior among young Chinese as a small act of resistance that bypasses conformity in daily life, and a lifestyle unbound by any framework has taken root as a form of self-love.

For example, followers of tou gan leave work early in defiance of “overtime work,” which is taken for granted in China, and order “greasy takeout” food as a rebellion against healthy eating and a restrained lifestyle.

This image was generated using the Flamel AI Image Generator—tool provided by Smoretalk.

The media also introduced the story of a woman from Guangdong in southeastern China who believes in the tou gan lifestyle. Kitty (real name), who claims to follow “emotional theft” as a practice, said, “I never tell my parents how much I earn, which is considered rude in many Chinese families.” She continued, “I’ve been working for six years, and every time my mom asks about my salary, I always say it’s 13,000 yuan ($1,800).” She added that the number is made up, but it is somewhat true, and she will never tell the exact amount. She does not want to disclose how much she spends in a month because her mother values frugality. From her mother’s perspective, she might be spending too much (indulgent) and could be chastised, so she keeps her earnings a secret. According to her mother’s calculations, Kitty’s savings should be enough to buy a car and a house. However, she said, “I have almost no savings,” and “The salary I told my mother about is a ‘deviation,’ but literally, it’s a real ‘lifesaver.'”

This image was generated using the Flamel AI Image Generator—tool provided by Smoretalk.

Other tou gan believers are finding or securing small spaces where they can completely control their lives. Zhang, who lives in Shenzhen, Guangdong, decided to use separate rooms with her boyfriend this year. While cohabiting couples are generally expected to share a bed or use the same bedroom, they reject this. Zhang said she wanted to steal personal time from the routine of married life. According to her, having a private life and independent living in separate rooms offered unprecedented freedom.

“Emotional theft” believers also find joy in subtly disrupting social order. The media shared the story of an anonymous netizen who confessed to secretly crushing ramen in the supermarket. On the social media platform Weibo, he wrote, “I’m sorry, but I’ve always wanted to do this, and it’s a stress reliever.”

This image was generated using the Flamel AI Image Generator—tool provided by Smoretalk.
This image was created with the Flamel AI Image Generator—tool provided by Smoretalk.
This image was created with the Flamel AI Image Generator—tool provided by Smoretalk.

Another “emotional theft” believer confessed to sneaking into the bathroom to sleep during work hours. He wrote, “I’ve never been late or left early, but today I was just too tired.”

A 24-year-old student named Wang from Henan province in central China got a secret tattoo on his left arm in memory of his late grandfather last February. According to Chinese law, people with visible tattoos cannot undergo the health examination required for civil service exams in some state agencies. Despite this, Wang chose to get the tattoo. Wang said, “If you don’t break away from the rules of life every once in a while, the feeling of suffocation will be too strong.”

This image was created with the Flamel AI Image Generator—tool provided by Smoretalk.

One of the main reasons for committing “emotional theft” includes consideration for others with different lifestyles. A 20-year-old Chinese girl named Xu, who grew up in rural China, considers overseas travel a luxury. So, when she visited South Korea, she posted photos on social media set to private, which only she could see. She hoped to get compliments and envy from her friends by posting her travel photos but was worried about friends feeling jealous or inferior. Therefore, she decided to keep her travel memories a secret. She said, “I keep these precious travel memories a secret. I feel thrilled every time I look at these photos.”

Meanwhile, the media diagnosed that emotional theft believers may not cause as much chaos in companies as those who bow down to the company’s orders. This trend is another example of young Chinese people trying to find ways to pursue personal desires in a high-pressure work and social environment.

Daniel Kim
content@viewusglobal.com

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