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.
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.
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 “unintegrated” or “complicit in the spread of Islam extremism”. The stigmatization of the ‘white left’ is driven first and foremost by Chinese netizens’ understanding of ‘western’ 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 (圣母) – literally the ‘holy mother’ – which according to its users refers to those who are ‘overemotional’, ‘hypocritical’ and ‘have too much empathy’. 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.
In May 2016, Amnesty International published their survey results indicating that the most welcoming country for refugees was China. Leaving the reliability of its sample and methodology aside, this finding was not at all taken as a compliment in the Chinese media. Global Times conducted their own online survey in response to Amnesty’s claim, and the results were quite the opposite: 90.3% said ‘no’ to the question ‘would you accept refugees in your own household?’ and 79.6% said ‘no’ to the question ‘would you accept refugees in your city, or would you like to be neighbours with refugees?’. Ironically, Amnesty’s portrayal of China as a welcoming country for displaced people was even read by some netizens as part of a foreign conspiracy, intended to pressure the Chinese government to accept more refugees. A senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences commented that this survey was “weird” and seemed to “incite citizens against the government”.
The anti-baizuo discourse in Chinese social media gained stronger momentum during the US presidential election campaign. If criticisms of the ‘white left’ in the context of the refugee crisis were mainly about disapproval of ‘moralist humanitarianism’ mixed with Islamophobia, they became politically more elaborate as Chinese critics of the ‘white left’ discovered Donald J. Trump, whom they both identify with and take inspiration 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 ‘white left’. Baizuo critics now began to identify Obama and Clinton as the new epitome of the ‘white left’, despite the fact that they were neither particularly humanitarian nor particularly kind to migrants. Trump was taken as the champion of everything the ‘white left’ were against, and baizuo critics naturally became his enthusiastic supporters.