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 (白左), 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.The exact parallel with certain voices in America is uncanny. I suppose part of this could be the translation, which was made by an author trying to draw the parallel, but just the phrase ‘white left’ seems very telling to me. I have read that some Russians use ‘LGBT’ in the same way, as a general accusation of naïve, arrogant western decadence.
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”. . . .
In an academic-style essay that was retweeted more than 7000 times on Weibo, a user named ‘fantasy lover Mr. Liu’ ‘reviewed’ European philosophy from Voltaire and Marx to Adorno and Foucault, concluding that the ‘white left’ as a 'spiritual epidemic' is on its way to self-destruction. He then stated that Trump’s win was only “a small victory over this spiritual epidemic of humankind”, but “western civilization is still far from its self-redemption”.
I wonder to what extent this rhetoric really points to similar issues across these diverse nations. I suppose gay rights is a global matter, but does that necessarily line up with any other big political question? Could it really be true that the whole world is experiencing a conflict between, on the one hand, authoritarian, socially conservative nationalism, and on the other the advocates of an open, democratic society with a strong focus on individual liberty? Are these at base just two personality types acting out their ancient opposition according to contemporary rules? I think that for the U.S. that description obscures as much as it reveals, so I tend to think that the same must apply even more so to other countries I know less well. But I wonder.