Chenchen Zhang informs us that the educated Chinese despise “baizuo,” soft-headed and soft-hearted Western liberals. And who can blame them?
If you look at any thread about Trump, Islam or immigration on a Chinese social media platform these days, itâ€™s impossible to avoid encountering the term baizuo, or literally, the â€˜white leftâ€™. It first emerged about two years ago, and yet has quickly become one of the most popular derogatory descriptions for Chinese netizens to discredit their opponents in online debates.
So what does â€˜white leftâ€™ mean in the Chinese context, and whatâ€™s behind the rise of its (negative) popularity? It might not be an easy task to define the term, for as a social media buzzword and very often an instrument for ad hominem attack, it could mean different things for different people. A thread on â€œwhy well-educated elites in the west are seen as naÃ¯ve â€œwhite leftâ€ in Chinaâ€ on Zhihu, a question-and-answer website said to have a high percentage of active users who are professionals and intellectuals, might serve as a starting point.
The question has received more than 400 answers from Zhihu users, which include some of the most representative perceptions of the ‘white left’. Although the emphasis varies, baizuo is used generally to describe those who â€œonly care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environmentâ€ and â€œhave no sense of real problems in the real worldâ€; they are hypocritical humanitarians who advocate for peace and equality only to â€œsatisfy their own feeling of moral superiorityâ€; they are â€œobsessed with political correctnessâ€ to the extent that they â€œtolerate backwards Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalismâ€; they believe in the welfare state that â€œbenefits only the idle and the free ridersâ€; they are the â€œignorant and arrogant westernersâ€ who â€œpity the rest of the world and think they are savioursâ€. …
In fact, heated discussions about baizuo on Chinese social media websites rarely make reference to domestic issues, except for occasionally and unsurprisingly insulting Chinese Muslims for being â€œunintegratedâ€ or â€œcomplicit in the spread of Islam extremismâ€. The stigmatization of the â€˜white leftâ€™ is driven first and foremost by Chinese netizensâ€™ understanding of â€˜westernâ€™ problems. It is a symptom and weakness of the Other.
The term first became influential amidst the European refugee crisis, and Angela Merkel was the first western politician to be labelled as a baizuo for her open-door refugee policy. Hungary, on the other hand, was praised by Chinese netizens for its hard line on refugees, if not for its authoritarian leader. Around the same time another derogatory name that was often used alongside baizuo was shengmu â€“ literally the â€˜holy motherâ€™ â€“ which according to its users refers to those who are â€˜overemotionalâ€™, â€˜hypocriticalâ€™ and â€˜have too much empathyâ€™. The criticisms of baizuo and shengmu soon became an online smear campaign targeted at not only public figures such as J. K. Rowling and Emma Watson, but also volunteers, social workers and all other ordinary citizens, whether in Europe or China, who express any sympathy with international refugees. …
The anti-baizuo discourse in Chinese social media gained stronger momentum during the US presidential election campaign. If criticisms of the â€˜white leftâ€™ in the context of the refugee crisis were mainly about disapproval of â€˜moralist humanitarianismâ€™ mixed with Islamophobia, they became politically more elaborate as Chinese critics of the â€˜white leftâ€™ discovered Donald J. Trump, whom they both identify with and take inspirations from. Following the debates in the US, a number of other issues such as welfare reforms, affirmative action and minority rights were introduced into online discussions on the â€˜white leftâ€™. Baizuo critics now began to identify Obama and Clinton as the new epitome of the â€˜white leftâ€™, despite the fact that they were neither particularly humanitarian nor particularly kind to migrants. Trump was taken as the champion of everything the â€˜white leftâ€™ were against, and baizuo critics naturally became his enthusiastic supporters. …
From a domestic perspective, the proliferation of anti-baizuo sentiment is clearly in line with the dominance of a kind of brutal, demoralized pragmatism in post-socialist China. Many of the attacks on the welfare state and the idea that states have obligations towards international refugees appeal to the same social Darwinist logic of â€˜survival of the fittestâ€™. It is assumed that individuals should take responsibility for their own misery, whether it is war or poverty, and should not be helped by others. The rationale goes hand in hand with the view that inequality is inevitable in a market-economy-cum-Hobbesian-society. Although economic disparity in China has been worsening in recent years, sociologist Yu Xie found that most Chinese people regard it as an inevitable consequence of economic growth, and that inequality is unlikely to give rise to political or social unrest.
Pragmatism with an emphasis on self-responsibility seems to be the ideology of our post-ideological times. It is, in UK prime minister Theresa Mayâ€™s words, â€˜living within our meansâ€™. This is combined with a general indifference towards race issues, or even worth, with certain social Darwinist beliefs that some races are superior to others, leading many mainland Chinese netizens to dismiss struggles against structural discriminations as naÃ¯ve, pretentious or demanding undeserved privileges.
Seen from the perspective of international relations, the anti-baizuo discourse can be understood as part of what William A. Callahan calls â€˜negative soft powerâ€™, that is, constructing the Chinese self through â€˜the deliberate creation and then exclusionâ€™ of Others as â€˜barbariansâ€™ or otherwise inferior. Criticisms of the â€˜white leftâ€™ against the background of the European refugee crisis fit especially well with the â€˜rising Chinaâ€™ versus â€˜Europe in declineâ€™ narrative. According to Baidu Trends, one of the most related keywords to baizuo was huimie: â€œto destroyâ€. Articles with titles such as â€˜the white left are destroying Europeâ€™ were widely circulated.
In an academic-style essay that was retweeted more than 7000 times on Weibo, a user named â€˜fantasy lover Mr. Liuâ€™ â€˜reviewedâ€™ European philosophy from Voltaire and Marx to Adorno and Foucault, concluding that the â€˜white leftâ€™ as a ‘spiritual epidemic’ is on its way to self-destruction. He then stated that Trumpâ€™s win was only â€œa small victory over this spiritual epidemic of humankindâ€, but â€œwestern civilization is still far from its self-redemptionâ€. However ridiculous it may appear, the post is illustrative of how a demonized Other is projected onto seemingly objective or academic criticisms of the â€˜white leftâ€™. Ultimately, the more the â€˜white leftâ€™ â€“ whatever it means â€“ represent the fatal weakness of democracy, the more institutional and normative security the Chinese regime enjoys. The grassroots campaign against the â€˜white leftâ€™ thus echoes the officially-sanctioned campaign against â€˜universal valuesâ€™, providing a negative evidence for the superiority of the Chinese self.