The term baizuo, or “white left,” first appeared on the Chinese internet several years ago to describe a certain type of Western liberalism concerned with reforming capitalism in order to distribute wealth more equally. To certain Chinese netizens, however, supporters of this ideology are unduly preoccupied with identity politics and other lifestyle issues like drug policy reform. As a result, “white left” has become their barb of choice.
I first came across the term “white left” toward the end of last year, while having dinner in a restaurant popular with foreign students near Nanjing Normal University in the eastern province of Jiangsu. A conversation among the group of Chinese and American graduate students turned to the then-recent election of U.S. President Donald Trump. The Chinese scholars began to poke fun at the American contingent for their deep concern over Trump’s election. Then the conversation shifted to Mandarin, and the Chinese scholars — most of whom had studied overseas and held fairly liberal views — tossed the term “white left” around with glee.
Recently, Western media outlets have come to notice that the phrase “white left” has become a popular Chinese internet insult. News of this was then picked up by right-wing and alt-right media outlets and message boards, including reddit’s white nationalist wing and political commentator Tucker Carlson of Fox News.
Many on the Western right were overjoyed to read a critique of Western leftists and progressives. China’s targets of anti-white left vitriol included some of the alt-right’s favorite targets, including those who identified with Black Lives Matter and the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, as well as Twitter progressives, so-called social justice warriors — a name that has become a common insult thrown at campaigners for social reform — and the “dirtbag left,” the loose faction of American leftist millennials most closely associated with the Chapo Trap House podcast and known for being skeptical of the U.S. Democratic Party.
The rhetoric of the anti-white left also chimed nicely with the increasingly abusive language of the Western right. Many of the Chinese netizens throwing out the white left insult have spent time in the trenches of online forums and gaming platforms, battling the netto uyoku, Japan’s online right wing, and the online nationalists in South Korea and Taiwan.
However, many readers who have followed the phenomenon of Chinese netizens attacking the American left and celebrating Trump’s win share the problem of the American scholars that night in Nanjing. Put simply, Chinese demonization of the white left isn’t coming from right-wingers — it’s coming from the left itself.
Over the last 10 years or so, Chinese scholars and politicians have mostly moved away from the Western-style liberalism that seemed popular at the turn of the decade. The anti-white left army, despite their ostensibly alt-right battle cries, have more in common with New Left revival movements, like those once led by the neo-Maoist Fan Jinggang on now-defunct messaging platform Utopia, as well as Chinese online outlet April Media — previously known as Anti-CNN — which dealt in negative portrayals of the West relative to China.
The Chinese scholars at the table in Nanjing that night were far less overtly hostile than the online anti-white left trolls, but they shared a similar belief that the Western left would have difficulty succeeding in reforming an economic system that was designed to be exploitative. To them, one of the main fallacies of the so-called progressive left was that there was no real alternative to capitalism — which, they argued, should be repaired rather than overhauled. The American graduate students saw no real alternative to capitalism, while the Chinese scholars were born into a different system: namely, reform-era China, where markets are allowed to flourish, but where the guiding hand of the state looms large at all times.
One of the key texts of the anti-white left is an online essay by a Weibo user named “Fantasy Lover Mr. Liu,” titled “The Road to Spiritual Plague: The History of the Evolution of the White Left.” The abrasive text begins: “Trump’s victory is only a small stone flung from humanity’s sling against the giant we face: the spiritual plague.”
Liu’s essay is, essentially, a somewhat unhinged history of the white left. He identifies several waves of the white left, the third wave coming with thinkers like Michel Foucault and the Frankfurt School, whom, he writes, were so traumatized by the horrors of the Second World War that they sought to deconstruct Western culture without actually considering an alternative.
The fourth and final wave, Liu says, was led by the students of the professors who had staged protests against the Vietnam War and had succeeded in ousting established academics on both the left and the right. He argues that academic curiosity was lost as the New Left demanded ideological purity on the questions of identity politics. To Liu, intellectual shallowness, isolation, and violence constitute the main features of the modern white left. Its advocates created a hive-mind in academia, which allowed them to spread white left values through Western society. The riots and protests that followed the election of Trump are the best evidence of this.
Liu’s writing is incoherent at the best of times, and his initial focus on the rise of Donald Trump presents a stumbling block to understanding the anti-white left movement. I would suggest that some of the references to Trump in Liu’s essay are simply part of an attempt to incite and harass liberal-minded readers. As the global order has shifted from west to east, and as Western nations have stumbled through a string of economic and political crises, the mood on the Chinese left has been triumphant, and Donald Trump’s election is most often seen as a stake through the heart of a brand of liberalism obsessed with identity politics and unable to offer real solutions to the perennial plague of wealth inequality.
What the American alt-right haven’t noticed, however, is that they’re not praising people like themselves. In fact, China’s anti-white left adherents are full of praise for leftist thinkers. The glee that the American alt-right takes in the Chinese attack on the progressive left would be undercut if they could read Liu’s praise of Marx and Mao, as well as of lesser-known leftist thinkers, whom Liu argues provided a critique of feudalism and capitalism, even if they were not part of what he calls the “revolutionary left.”
Although Liu and his acolytes tend to evince a certain discomfort with hallmarks of Western progressive thought — such as gay marriage and the decriminalization of drug use — they are mostly sympathetic to the struggles of marginalized groups. Liu argues that the economic realities of the prevailing social order are a problem beyond reform. In this respect, they are a throwback to earlier movements in Chinese political thought.
In August 1963, Mao Zedong published a document titled “Statement Supporting the American Negroes in Their Just Struggle Against Racial Discrimination by U.S. Imperialism.” After an English translation of the text appeared in 1966, statements on American race relations were welcomed by African-American activists including Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka.
When the State Council Information Office issued their annual report on U.S. human rights this March, the message was the same as it was in 1963. In the view of the Chinese government, the U.S. has remained a segregated society that violently oppresses racial minorities, despite the superficial victories of the American left. As Liu puts it: “Exploitation, social polarization, sexism, racism, and the decimation of the culture industry are all important problems. They are also products of capitalism.”
The misreading of the anti-white left is evidence that most in the West, whether on the left or right, find it difficult to conceive of alternatives to the current way of doing things. Even the graduate students at the table in Nanjing, fluent in both Mandarin and English, could find no shared political language. Though the future prospects of socialism with Chinese characteristics occasionally sow skepticism among Chinese students, they mostly agree that further reform in the mold of a Western liberal system would be even more problematic. After all, at a time when both the U.S. and the EU are in crisis, what practical alternative can the white left truly offer?
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Technicians test samples of latex masks of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at a workshop in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, Sept. 23, 2016. Lü Bin/VCG)