If you look at any thread about Trump, Islam or immigration on a Chinese social media platform these days, it’s impossible to avoid encountering the term baizuo, or literally, the ‘white left’. 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 ‘white left’ mean in the Chinese context, and what’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 “why well-educated elites in the west are seen as naïve “white left” in China” 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 “only care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment” and “have no sense of real problems in the real world”; they are hypocritical humanitarians who advocate for peace and equality only to “satisfy their own feeling of moral superiority”; they are “obsessed with political correctness” to the extent that they “tolerate backwards Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalism”; they believe in the welfare state that “benefits only the idle and the free riders”; they are the “ignorant and arrogant westerners” who “pity the rest of the world and think they are saviours”.
Apart from some anti-hegemonic sentiments, the connotations of ‘white left’ in the Chinese context clearly resemble terms such as ‘regressive liberals’ or ‘libtards’ in the United States. In a way the demonization of the ‘white left’ in Chinese social media may also reflect the resurgence of right-wing populism globally.
I suspect that the demonization of SJWs in Chinese social media is a reflection of the global growth of the Alt-Right. Asians in general, and the Chinese in particular, are far more intensely nationalistic than Westerners these days, as, unlike the West, they have cast off most of the cultural Marxism that Mao inflicted upon them. Since that experience of Cultural Revolution cost over 50 million Chinese lives, it is no wonder that they are not eager for more imposed cultural change.
Although there are no shortage of Chinese SJWs in the West, who are trying to use the SJW Narrative to their immediate benefit in a foreign land, the smarter Chinese are aware of how that ever-mutating Narrative will be used against them, as indeed it already is in cases such as justifying anti-Asian discrimination in the Ivy League. Being a low-trust people themselves, they will use the Narrative when it benefits them and oppose it when it doesn’t. But in neither case will they actually take it seriously, or genuinely subscribe to social justice ideals. They know SJWs for a true enemy.
Being an astute and self-conscious people, the Chinese are perfectly aware of why the West is in decline and the various parties who are responsible for that decline. It should be no surprise that they have absolutely no intention of following the West’s failed path of equalitarianism and multiculturalism, for all that the Chinese leadership presently gives lip service to globalism and free trade.
Seen from the perspective of international relations, the anti-baizuo discourse can be understood as part of what William A. Callahan calls ‘negative soft power’, that is, constructing the Chinese self through ‘the deliberate creation and then exclusion’ of Others as ‘barbarians’ or otherwise inferior. Criticisms of the ‘white left’ against the background of the European refugee crisis fit especially well with the ‘rising China’ versus ‘Europe in decline’ narrative. According to Baidu Trends, one of the most related keywords to baizuo was huimie: “to destroy”. Articles with titles such as ‘the white left are destroying Europe’ were widely circulated.
The Chinese Alt-Right has the potential to be an extraordinarily powerful force, and if it can keep China’s historical imperialist tendencies in check, it may prove to be a vital ally to the Alt-Right in the West in the long term.