I’ve written previously that politics — and human behavior generally — is in large part a status game: we care a lot about the way we’re perceived by other people (and ourselves). As Adam Smith observed with respect to charity, our actions are fueled by a desire to be regarded as “lovely.” In politics, we want to be perceived as “better” than the other team. More broadly, we do all kinds of things that are basically performative: look at me, aren’t I smart, wise, trustworthy, funny, cool, confident, modest, etc.? There’s nothing wrong with that — signalling can be functional and rewarding — but of course, sometimes the tail wags the dog (i.e. “virtue signalling”).
Anyways, conventional wisdom has it that the Left has the market cornered on international political status. In other words, one of the upsides of being on the American Team Left, is that folks in far away places hold you in higher esteem. “We sure are embarrassed by
Bush Trump, but at least we brought you Obama, amiright?” I remember when folks were so bullish on the status power of leftism that they believed Obama would bring peace to the Middle East, simply by repairing our “bad” reputation cultivated by W.
Overconfidence notwithstanding, there is something rewarding about external validation. In the Left’s debate with the Right, the Left can say “well, everyone else thinks we’re totally better, so boo on you.”
That’s why it’s a good thing for the Lefty psyche that lefties don’t know much about China. It appears (in an article I am taking at face value) that lefties have become something of a punchline in the world’s most populous country:
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.
Why is baizuo such a take down? Let the internet tell you:
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”.
Sick burn, broheim.
It turns out the Chinese netizens regard lefties with the same contempt as American netizens. To put it mildly, the baizu have the widest possible gap between their self-perceived righteousness and their actual righteousness. At least Don Quixote had the cojones to strap on armor and a sword, even if he was blindly tilting at windmills (and mixing cultural metaphors). The baizu are decidedly not lovable losers.
What’s really interesting is that the Chinese are throwing shade from the peanut gallery — they’ve got no real skin in the game when it comes to this left-right debate — they just think the Left is dumb . . . and making America look bad:
However, Chinese netizens’ fierce attacks against the ‘white left’ seem curiously devoid of experiential motivation, since all these problems that conservatives in the west are concerned about – immigration, multiculturalism, minority rights, and affirmative actions – are largely unknown to Chinese society . . . 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.
Well, at least we can look forward to the New York Times editorial about how Trump is lifting America’s reputation in China, by far our greatest geopolitical rival.
Ha, no. If the data don’t fit the model, throw ’em out. Better yet, make up new data because the Left is nothing, if not sheltered and parochial:
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.”
So, Amnesty International made a tried and true appeal to vanity: “even the Chinese think admitting refugees is the right thing to do. See, righties? Everyone agrees we’re right!” However, back in China, not only were the results of Amnesty’s survey facially preposterous, they were interpreted as an insult: “how dumb do you think we are?! Some kind of baizuo?! As if!”
To be clear, this is not just about immigration or refugees. The Chinese seemed to have captured the zeitgeist of American politics perfectly (perhaps a bit too perfectly):
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.
So, the Left claims that Trump and his supporters don’t like people of color. Trump and his supporters say that it has nothing to do with people of color and everything to do with the baizuo morons running things into the ground. The Chinese have surveyed the field and their ruling is in: Trump and his supporters are right. Now it’s the Right’s turn to gloat: “See, Lefties, even the Chinese agree that if any skin color is under attack, it’s white, which even you’d agree, is a proxy for the governing elite. Stop calling us racists and just admit that the problem is you, assholes.”
Personally, I’ve always maintained that establishment opposition to Trump is more about the diminished stature of the establishment than anything else. It seems even the Chinese agree with me.
The rest of the article, which purports to explore why the Chinese (yes, ALL the Chinese) are so critical of baizuo, isn’t that interesting. It does, however, reveal the biases of the author, which are decidedly to the left (giving me a bit more comfort to take its findings at face value). To summarize, the Chinese perceive baizuo as precipitating and hastening the demise of Western Civilization because the Chinese are afflicted with “a kind of brutal, demoralized pragmatism in post-socialist China.” They make the mistake of sharing values like “living within your means” and they erroneously believe that inequality is an “inevitable consequence of economic growth, and that inequality is unlikely to give rise to political or social unrest.”
Stupid Chinese with their cool-headed pragmatism — how dare they be at ease with basic economic principles?! Don’t they know the baizuo will whip the less fortunate into a jealous rage that will require more baizou policies just to keep the peace? It’s the downward spiral of civilization that’s inevitable, not inequality!
I guess that’s why the Chinese censor the internet.
If the Chinese take over the world, does that mean McCarthy was right all along?