Why Western Political Correctness Hasn’t Caught on in China
I was shocked when Alan first told me he voted for Donald Trump. My friend — I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy — certainly didn’t fit my perceived image of a Trump-supporter, though as a white, male graduate of an expensive East Coast university, he matched the profile in more ways than one. In all the years I’d known him, we’d never discussed politics. Then, one windy day late last year, he glanced around the New York City coffee shop in which we’d been chatting, leaned in, and whispered: “I need to be careful when speaking in public, but I really support Trump.”
We spent the whole afternoon debating the president’s policies. As we got up to leave, Alan gave me a hug and thanked me for, as he put it, “being so open-minded.” He told me he often feels as though he must hide his political views from his overwhelmingly liberal coworkers out of fear he’ll be labeled a racist. “I haven’t been able to talk so frankly about my political views with someone who’s not a conservative for a long time,” he said.
The notion of an American being afraid to express their political opinions might confuse many Chinese. Growing up, I always thought of the U.S. as a place where you could say whatever you wanted, no matter how unpopular or offensive it might be. Sometimes, this is a good thing. Sometimes — such as when prominent politicians deny evolution or discredit theories on climate change — it can be embarrassing. But the ability and willingness to always say what you think is something I long believed to be a core American value.
But after moving to the U.S. to study in 2010, I gradually realized that there are certain topics that many Americans find sensitive. My Chinese classmates guided me through the nuances of American discourse, warning me not to say “Black” or “Indian” — a common mistake made by Chinese students — but “African-American” and “Native American” instead. A fellow Chinese graduate of an American university once told me that one of her professors had instructed her to never use the construction “he or she” in a paper, because putting “he” in front of “she” would reinforce patriarchal values. And as a history major, I quickly learned to critique the straight white male perspective whenever it appeared in our readings.
It was all part of the American college experience, I figured, but since my return to China two years ago, I’ve been struck by how much it seems to worry Chinese netizens. I find my countrymen’s concerns about the rising tide of political correctness odd: We don’t participate in U.S. elections, for one, nor does our country seem in any danger of being taken over by so-called social justice warriors.
Yet the notion of political correctness that’s widespread in America and across the West is a prickly topic on Chinese social media. Netizens like to sling epithets like baizuo — Chinese for “white left,” a slang term similar to “SJWs” — at one another, and frequently accuse each other of being too politically correct.
The Chinese involved in these debates don’t always have a nuanced understanding of the concept, however. The recent news that the next actor to play Captain America might not be a white male caused a stir on Weibo — China’s Twitter equivalent — with fans bemoaning Marvel’s decision to cave in to what they saw as baizuo political correctness. Many seemed to wonder how a minority actor could portray one of America’s greatest patriots, with several making racist or sexist jokes. What’s often left out of such discussions, however, is Marvel’s long history of changing its characters’ genders and ethnicities, or what the change could mean to millions of young non-white Americans.
Netizens’ concerns about political correctness are in part grounded in China’s past. To some, the occasional use of mob tactics to punish political-correctness transgressions calls to mind periods of modern Chinese history — such as the bloody years of the Cultural Revolution — when saying the wrong thing was enough to get you labeled a “rightist,” or even cost you your life.
Whether right or wrong, that’s the association many Chinese make when they hear the term. I don’t think their concerns are entirely unfounded. I was a student at Yale three years ago, when a group of students campaigned to oust a professor from her university position. Her crime? Writing a letter in favor of letting students decide on their own Halloween costumes, rather than preemptively banning what could be potentially offensive.
The incident had a chilling effect on the whole campus. One of my professors told me he supported his colleague, but I noticed he would only talk about the issue with international students, seemingly because he was afraid of becoming the next target. I understand that the issue was complicated and touched a nerve, but I also couldn’t help but think of my own country’s painful past as I watched it unfold.
There is another reason political correctness rankles many Chinese: the belief that we — and Asians more broadly — are excluded from its protective umbrella. As some American institutions are finally beginning to make amends for longstanding discriminatory policies aimed at African-Americans and Hispanics, many Chinese wonder why comparatively little attention is paid to the suffering caused by policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act. Parents in particular — both Chinese and Asian-American — grow heated when someone brings up affirmative action. They believe, not without reason, that not only are Asians being treated differently from other minorities, they are still actively facing discrimination.
One of my best friends in China is among those upset about affirmative action. Though he is sympathetic to the plight of minority groups in the U.S., he’s vehemently opposed to anything he perceives as disadvantaging East Asians, and he’s skeptical of political correctness as a concept. For example, he finds it odd when people of color appear onstage in Shakespeare productions, claiming it not to be “authentic.” When I try to explain what’s motivated some American directors to include more people of color in their productions, he’ll ask why, if that’s the case, there aren’t more Chinese faces on the stage. It’s a point I have a hard time refuting.
However, having lived in the United States for six years, I can also appreciate the power of seeing yourself represented onstage or onscreen, especially when it’s so rare. During my last semester at Yale, I waited in line for more than 10 hours to get a rush ticket to see an original-cast performance of the musical “Hamilton.” I was inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reimagination of the founding fathers as young and energetic immigrants and was particularly struck by the performance given by Phillipa Soo — a Chinese-American. And whatever my compatriots may say about Marvel, I’m still looking forward to the day Hollywood finally casts its first Asian superhero.
Ultimately, I think political correctness depends on balance. When done right, it can raise awareness of sexism and racism in the workplace or on campus and help minorities — including Chinese-Americans and international students — be their own advocates. Many of my Chinese classmates in America appreciated that reports of racial and sexual harassment were being taken seriously, for example. At the same time, however we must be cautious about reducing people to simple labels like “racist” or “sexist.” I understand my friend Alan better now — far more so than if I’d written him off as just another racist Trump supporter, or if he’d been too afraid to tell me what he thought in the first place.
Chinese history tells us what happens when we choose antagonism over engagement. Political correctness should be about promoting inclusivity, not shutting down views that make us uncomfortable. I hope that one day, more people — in China and elsewhere — will feel safe expressing what’s on their minds.
Editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A tourist poses for a photo with a wax figure of Donald Trump in Shenyang, Liaoning province, March 6, 2017. VCG)