“Social Darwinism and the stigmatization of ‘white left’”: a translation of a talk by Fang Kecheng
All the traffic my Medium profile receives goes to one place: a translation of The Road to Spiritual Plague: The History of the Evolution of the White Left by Fantasy Lover Mr. Liu (幻想狂劉先生). The essay itself is a dumb screed directed at all progressive politics, written by someone with a weak grasp of Western intellectual history. Targets include Young Hegelians, Baudelaire, Maupassant, Habermas, Bertrand Russell, Althusser, Foucault, anti-war protesters, homosexuals and artists, the Democratic Party — the so-called white left or baizuo 白左.
The opponents of the white left prefer, usually, a far-right social Darwinist vision, and abhor anything that smacks of progressive sentimentality, like caring about other human beings or not wanting to live in a neoliberal Hellworld. But at this point the tag has been applied to anyone that’s written anything that racist computer programmers on Zhihu disagree with.
Looking at traffic sources, the essay I translated has been linked to mostly by alt-right subReddits, 8chan and the kind of places that anti-SJW dweebs that are into Jordan Peterson hang out— the white left label is as silly an idea and applied as widely as Peterson’s “cultural Marxism.” It’s not surprising that Peterson’s ideas have found fertile ground on Chinese discussion sites like Zhihu, and that anti-SJW types can vibe with anti-white left takes.
It was surreal to see Tucker Carlson talking about the white left (or buy-ZOE, as he calls them), quoting from the Chenchen Zhang’s The curious rise of the ‘white left’ as a Chinese internet insult.
I ended up writing a piece for Sixth Tone, ‘White Left’: The Internet Insult the West Has Gotten Wrong (in fact, I think I was wrong about it, too, making the whole thing kinda ironic, I guess), mostly as a result of reading trackbacks from the translation of The Road to Spiritual Plague: The History of the Evolution of the White Left and seeing the topic popping up over and over again on the English-language internet following Tucker Carlson’s hot takes. (Despite not being able to convince anyone to run more of my own writing on the white left, I got a couple offers from alt-right outlets who, I guess, didn’t read the Sixth Tone piece closely.)
So… I was interested in a talk by Fang Kecheng, given on December the 2nd of last year, which helps explain where “white left” left came from, tracking it back to people like Li Shuo 李硕 and Liu Zhongjing aka William Liu; and offers a look at how the label’s meaning has shifted over time. The list of people smeared with the tag is impressive and somehow includes Ayn Rand. Fang’s own experience with progressives while in the United States and his own deep knowledge of partisan spaces on the Chinese internet make him the perfect person to introduce the topic.
The talk makes the point that the appearance of a social Darwinist anti-white left is a sign of things to come. As Fang says: “I think that how we view the attitudes and opinions that we label as ‘white left’ will determine the direction that our society goes.”
I reached out to Fang to see if he had plans to publish a version of the talk in English. He gave his blessing to translate the original text — you can find it here: “白左”污名化与社会达尔文主义 | C讲坛.
Fang Kecheng 方可成 (website / Twitter) did an MA in Journalism at Peking University’s School of Journalism and went on to work as political journalist at Southern Weekly. He’s currently is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
Fang has become one of the finest analysts of media — state and social — in China. He’s written about Jiang Zemin’s fan club and toad worship culture 膜蛤文化 (“‘Idolizing’ a Communist Party Leader: The Toad Worship Culture on the Chinese Internet”), human flesh search engines and the emergence of Chinese-language left-right partisan news sites. Fang has written about another Chinese social media tribe before, the little pink (a paper with Maria Repnikova: Demystifying “Little Pink”: The creation and evolution of a gendered label for nationalistic activists in China).
Three minor notes on the translation: 1) One problem with Medium is that it doesn’t allow footnotes. So, there my notes are, in ugly square brackets, bolded, littered throughout the text. 2) Medium frequently messes up the diacritical marks on pinyin, so I have reluctantly omitted them. 3) The talk concludes with a lengthy and interesting Q&A that I will append to this article soon, hopefully (and delete this note).
One major note on the translation: These are somewhat sensitive topics. Before taking issue with anything you believe Fang Kecheng has said, I suggest opening up the original version and making sure that the translation sufficiently captures the nuance — or that I haven’t just made an error.
Social Darwinism and the stigmatization of “white left”
Researching labels has become my hobby
We use a number of labels now, like wumao [those that support the government line in online discussions, online shill / wumao 五毛, from the idea that the Chinese government are paying for positive online comments at a rate of 5 mao per post], gongzhi [those that are against the government in online discussions, literally “public intellectual” / gongzhi 公知], zhinan’ai [literally “straight man cancer” / zhinan’ai 直男癌]. I’m sure everyone is familiar.
I’ve always been interested in these labels. The first one I researched was “old friends of the Chinese people” [Zhongguo renmin de lao pengyou 中国人民的老朋友] and I even wrote a book about it — the name was just that: Old Friends of the Chinese People [a review and interview in the Wall Street Journal: From Doctors to Kings: Who Are China’s ‘Old Friends’?]. The label has been applied to a group of people, but the group is far from homogenous. In the book, I divided them into four types. One of those old friends, and not somebody universally well-liked, was Mugabe who just recently left office. If you’re interested, I encourage you to read the book. It goes into much greater depth on the categories and who belongs in each one. But the fact is that this label was coined by the Chinese government to talk about their “old friends,” not necessarily old friends of the Chinese people.
Recently, I wrote another paper with one of my colleagues who understands Chinese media very well, analyzing another label: little pink [xiaofenhong 小粉红 / and the paper is, “Demystifying ‘Little Pink’: The creation and evolution of a gendered label for nationalistic activists in China,” written with Maria Repnikova]. We attempted to get to the bottom of how this label was created, what its significance was, and what did it symbolize about the society that produced it. The original work was written in English and it’s tough to get through, so I wrote a brief synopsis in Chinese titled, “Little Pink, a case of mistaken identity.” [Available here: 方可成：“小粉红” 一个“张冠李戴”的标签.]
These are two examples of my interests in labels. But why am I interested in them? The first reason is that these popular neologisms are a good way to examine the deeper psychology of a society. A label starts to spread because people find it useful; it becomes a tag that people pin on themselves or use to describe a particular group of people; and also, looking at these labels gives us an understanding of how people are talking about and thinking about things. Labels become shorthand for something that we want to describe. Like, when I run into someone whose point of view I disagree with, instead of breaking down their argument, I can simply tag them with whatever label, ending the discussion: “Oh, you’re a wumao, so anything you say in support of the government is unreliable,” “Oh, you’re a gongzhi…” or white left or a little pink, etc. It is a way to destroy the validity of an opponent’s arguments without engaging with them.
About “left” and “right”
Before we talk about white left, it’s important to know what we mean by “left” and by “right.”
As a tool for analyzing ideology, this spectrum can be quite confusing. Different countries describe different things as left and right.
My team and I put together a graphic a few years back to show how the spectrum would look in China. It was fairly popular, although not strictly accurate. I thought it was a good way to get the idea across, though.
This picture here isn’t the one we made. This is a simple illustration of how “left” and “right” are used in the West. Unfortunately, it’s not incredibly useful for talking about China.
Around the middle, slightly to the left is liberalism. This is a good description of the American Democratic Party, liberals.
Around the same point on the right, there is conservatism. In the United States, that would be the Republican Party.
Probably most people fall somewhere between those two points on the spectrum. Those on the far left and far right are few. On the far left, we’ve got socialism, communism, and on the far right, libertarianism and fascism.
We’re dealing with generalities here. For every doctrine and group, there are various differences on questions of government, economics, society and culture. So, for example, in American liberal circles, there’s a belief in redistribution and the government helping to level the playing field; culturally, liberals support diversity; on various specific social questions, a liberal will support the rights of sexual minorities, the LGBTQ groups; and they will advocate for environmental protection and animal rights.
On the right, conversely, there is a belief in small government. Conservatives are wary of taxation and government interference. The recent Republican tax bill is a good example of this. Now that the Republican Party is in power, there has been an increased push to slacken the reins of government. On gun control, American conservatives are against more regulation of the right to bear arms. The American conservative tends to be religious, and that colors their view of issues like global warming and the teaching of evolution in schools.
So, on the left, if you push the idea of the government’s role in the economy far enough, you wind up at the idea of a planned economy. With ideas on the right, pushed to the extreme, you have the belief that the government has no role, and that society is governed by survival of the fittest; inequality is the norm and society is stratified, with people of quality rising and low-grade people sinking; in society, there are superiors and inferiors and the government should not intervene to change the correct outcome.
Again, these are rough descriptions of points on the political spectrum, smoothing out a far more complex system. The “white left” that we are talking about today fall around “liberalism” on the spectrum.
Looking for the source of the term “white left”
Now I’d like to talk about my “unofficial” research into the white left.
Now, if I asked you to answer the question of when this term first appeared in the Chinese-speaking world… How would you find out?
A search engine. On a search engine, you can set a particular range of dates to search within. I used Baidu to search “white left” and set it to search content that appeared before December 31st of 2012. I saw very little evidence of the term used in the same way we use it now.
I found someone, maybe one of the Big V [like a Twitter checkmark, popular microblogger on Sina Weibo (and other social media sites?)] calling themselves White Left posting about science on a few sites like Guoke and Songshuhui. But that doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re discussing today.
When I moved the date up to December 31st of 2013, the word as we know it was in use. So, we can say that the term appeared in 2013.
But we all know that Baidu is not the most reliable source, so I decided to check Google. According to Google, the earliest use of “white left” is 2010. You can still find the essay online, “The Pseudo-morality of the Western White Left and Chinese Patriotic Scientists” [it’s still collected on Boxun: 西方白左和中国爱国科学家的伪道德]. Who wrote it? I looked a bit further and found that it originated on Renren [人人网 is a Facebook-style social media network that, like Facebook, was first restricted to students at specific schools, and is now used by almost nobody] and was written by someone named Li Shuo [李硕].
Does anybody know who Li Shuo is? If you were on Renren back in the day, you might recognize him as a popular writer on politics. How does he use the term “white left”? It says here: “…the odd ‘patriotic scientist’ and the even rarer ‘white left.’ For the first category, there’s Hsue-Shen Tsien [Chinese-born scientist that worked at JPL before a Red Scare arrest that ultimately ended with him sent to China in exchange for American pilots, 钱学森], Chien Wei-zang [another Chinese-born JPL scientist that returned to China, 钱伟长], Xiao Guangyan [U.S.-educated science that met an unhappy ending in the Cultural Revolution, 萧光琰]; and in the second category the husband and wife team of Erwin Engst [阳早] and Joan Hinton [nuclear physicist that went with her partner Erwin Engst to China in 1946 and ended up staying for the rest of their lives, 寒春].” If you’ve read my book on old friends of the Chinese people, you are familiar with Engst and Hinton and the category of “old friends” that came to China before 1949.
In my book, Old Friends of the Chinese People, the category of those that came to China before 1949 includes a number of journalists and doctors and other enthusiastic young people that sympathized with a communist revolution. They got in touch with the Communist Party which was fairly weak at the time, and came to China with their leftist idealism, hoping to help the revolution in any way that they could. Engst and Hinton were two of those old friends, American leftists that came to help the cause of the Communist Party.
Those familiar with Li Shuo could tell you that he is probably fairly right, according to the spectrum we looked at above, maybe even a bit libertarian. He has a belief that human society governs itself and doesn’t require any government interference. He stands in opposition to those on the socialist left, so his use of “white left” to describe Engst and Hinton is pejorative. It’s clear that he is mocking socialism.
There is a big difference between recent usage of “white left” and the way Li Shuo uses it. Although we can perhaps agree that Li Shuo invented the word on Renren, it would have been limited to a fairly small group of people.
I recently asked a number of friends when they first heard the word “white left.” From them, I received confirmation that Renren and Li Shuo were the probable source.
I went to check Zhihu [知乎 is sorta a hybrid of Quora, Reddit, and Encyclopedia Dramatica] and found that the earliest appearance of “white left” was by an anonymous user.
From the Zhihu entry we can see how the word got into the bloodstream of social media, starting around 2013.
There’s an entry on Zhihu called “White left (internet slang)” which is from 2015 but didn’t attract much attention until 2016 when a user named zero2014 posted his own definition.
He explained that “white left” refers to contemporary White Western left-wing parties [the text just reads “white people” but I want to make it clear and just using “white left-wing parties” and “white leftists” gets confusing] and their White Western followers and sympathizers. “These White people call for racial equality and an end to racial prejudice using slogans promoting love and compassion. In actual fact, these White leftist parties are willing to sacrifice their own constituents to win power. The White Western leftists are helping to speed up the disintegration of the conservative, Christian, pro-family West.” And the philosophy of the “white left” is compared to AIDS.
Of course, if someone saw this posted on Zhihu, they were free to edit the entry. But we can see the beginnings of typical views of the “white left” and the stigmatization of the term.
Now, who is zero2014? I looked at his profile and discovered — not unexpectedly — he is a software engineer. Zhihu has a large population of software engineers and it’s not unusual for them to express similar opinions. I looked a bit deeper and found a number of postings by zero2014 and they tended to be about Middle Easterners and a fear of refugees entering China. Even then, before the term had fully entered mainstream discourse, we can see the main concern of those stigmatizing the “white left”: Islam and refugees.
Another edit to the “white left” page comes from Gui Qi Mingrimiao [I guess 鬼崎明日喵 is an Occultic;Nine reference? “Asuna Kisaki, a highschool-aged girl who happens to be an FBI agent skilled in psychometry” — troubled young reactionaries in China love anime too]. Remember that ID because it comes up again.
He says: “‘White left’ originates with the ‘Ancient Evil’ discussion group [a Douban discussion group dominated by followers of Liu Zhongjing aka William Liu aka Auntie 阿姨 who pushed a hard right pro-Western traditional conservatism opposed to contemporary Western democracy and in favor of a sort of dog-eat-dog medieval feudal society. Liu got involved with the Shouters sect in the late-2000s and ended up emigrating to the U.S.]. The current meaning of the word is: 1) White Westerners [again, to be clear, bairen zuopai 白人左派, just literally “white (people) leftists”] that adopt an ideology that gives up individual liberty in order to foster diversity, or non-White leftists [feibairen zuopai 非白人左派, “non-white leftists”] that adopt that viewpoint; 2) supports of non-revolutionary Marxism.”
This description is more objective than the last one. The interesting thing is that he made the edit at 8:29pm and, three minutes later, removed reference to the Douban group and inserted instead “neoliberalism.” I don’t really agree with the edit myself, and I don’t think neoliberals have much to do with the invention of the term. But that’s a topic for another day.
That edit appeared in 2016. I decided to search for “white left” on specific domains.
First, Zhihu: 24,300 results. That seemed like a lot. Weibo is comparatively larger than Zhihu but there were only 3440 results for “white left.” I checked Tianya — nowhere near as popular as it once was but still fairly busy these days — and found a little over a thousand hits.
What was going on with Tianya and the term? I found an essay titled: “Swedenstan, a nation destroyed by the white left and feminism” [probably a fun read: 瑞典斯坦，被白左和女权主义毁掉的国家]. The essay is about how Sweden has been Islamized. Another essay on Tianya was about the Western welfare state being flooded with refugees. You’ll remember our discussion earlier about the Western left’s belief in redistribution through taxation and welfare.
I decided to look at the use of the term on Wenxuecity [discussion site popular with PRC citizens studying and working in Canada and the U.S., 文学城]. Although the site is fairly small, there were more than three thousand hits for “white left,” two or three times more than on Tianya. This makes sense since many of the commenters on Wenxuecity are China in the United States and are running into a Western ideology and value system that they are unfamiliar with or want to debate. That is part of the reason that “white left” comes up on Zhihu, too, where quite a few commenters working overseas as coders [coding peasants 码农].
My next stop was MIT BBS, another site popular with Chinese in the U.S. The discussion on MIT BBS is very heated as many feel that the policies of the Democratic Party have harmed the interests of Chinese immigrants in the States. The “white left” is a target of frequent attacks. They believe that Chinese citizens rights to visas and education in the U.S. are not being protected by Democrats. This is something that’s worth talking about. Democratic Party policies attempt to help minorities, and those policies are often directed at African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, rather than Asian-Americans. But if we changed things so that no attempt was made to help ethnic minorities at all, would things be better for Asian-Americans? You can come to your own conclusion.
I went to Baidu to see the amount of searches for “white left.” Before 2016, there were basically no Baidu searches for the term. The number of searches shot up in the middle of 2016 and peaked in November, around the time of the U.S. general election.
We can see from the record of Baidu searches that, although “white left” appeared on Renren and Zhihu before 2016, it only entered the public consciousness in a major way as the American election heated up. That was also around the time of Brexit, several other elections in the European Union, and the refugee crisis.
The use of the term was mostly limited to politics and economics and, after it spread out from online discussion groups like Zhihu and Renren, it took on its current relationship to sociocultural issues like refugees, feminism and Islam.
Who are the “white left” of the Sinosphere?
Who is the “white left” label being applied to on the Chinese internet and why?
The term is mostly used for White Westerners, but, as that definition above says, it can also be applied to non-White people that share the viewpoint, including Asian people.
First, the tag is often put on those so-called bleeding hearts [shengmuxin 圣母心 — I hope this translation does it justice] who always want to care for those that they see as pitiable, usually black people, Muslims, and LGBT people — and refugees, of course. Caring about those people is the favorite activity of the white left.
But the use of the term “white left” to label those that care about minorities or refugees or gay people is done to call into question the sincerity of their advocacy. Hollywood stars are very often tarred “white left.” Many Chinese netizens commenting on Hollywood stars’ calls to welcome refugees asked: “If you care about refugees so much, why don’t you let them stay with you?” When social networks lit up with criticism of Yao Chen [Chinese actress and activist, UNHCR Honarary Patron for China, visited refugees in Southeast Asia and Africa, 79 million followers on Weibo, 姚晨] last year the same logic was used to attack her: if you care about refugees so much, why aren’t there any living with you?
In the eyes of netizens the “white left” enforce no-go-zones of political correctness [zhengzhi zhengque de jinqu 政治正确的禁区]: don’t talk about black people, don’t say anything bad about Muslims… Those that violate taboos are accused of prejudice. The “white left” is adept at throwing out accusations of prejudice.
This is how the anti-“white left” attacks the “white left.” Some feel that those concerned with environmental protection or animal rights are busy-bodies with too much time on their hands. They feel that those concerns will hold China back from fully developing [the usual line is that the West developed without paying attention to the environment and requiring China to follow the same environmental protection guidelines won’t allow them to gain parity with the West].
Arriving at this point in our analysis, there are a few questions we can ask.
For example, sympathizing with the situation of black people... Why should we sympathize? The opponents of the “white left” would say that, in the United States, the poverty and problems of black people are the result of their stupidity and laziness. But looking at the problem more closely, it would seem to be more a result of the structure of the American society, wouldn’t it? Black Americans are disadvantaged when it comes to education, health, diet, etc. The problems black Americans face are structural, aren’t they? Wouldn’t that be the reason that their position in society and their income doesn’t match the average white American?
Now, before we talk about Muslims, I must admit that I haven’t studied Islam. The anti-”white left” position is that the “white left” support Islam — they even celebrate, or at least excuse, terrorist attacks. But from what I know of the “white left,” that doesn’t seem to be the case. There may be some aspects of Islam that appear backwards to us, but the religion is not a monolithic entity — there are many sects and many different viewpoints within the religion on belief and practice: there are conservative groups and progressive groups; and there are groups that support terrorism and others that promote the integration of Islam with modern society. Attitudes to Islam on the “white left” are more complicated than opponents would have you believe.
What is the true “white left”?
What I have just summarized is the “white left” as it exists in the mind of Chinese netizens. But what is the white left, really? Right now, since I’m working at an American university, I’m surrounded by the white left. Anyone I bump into on campus is likely to be white left. So, who would I use as a good example?
The first person that came to mind is one of the professors at my university. This is her office. As you can see, she has a pet, and stuffed animals, too. At home, she’s got a cat and a lizard. She loves animals. That makes sense, since the definition of “white left” almost always includes advocating animal rights and protections.
She is a professor of political science and communication [some online sleuthing reveals that he is talking about Professor Diana Mutz, Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication at Annenberg School for Communication — the parrot is named Pippin and you can find out more here: Office Artifacts: Diana Mutz]. Since I was going back to China for a few months, I needed a place to park my car. The parking lot at the university would have charged me about two hundred bucks a month. Since I knew she had a large house, I thought I would ask her if I could keep my car there. She told me that she’d need to discuss it with her husband.
Her husband is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Two typical “white left.” They discussed it and told me that I could leave my car there. But they said: “Things have been a bit chaotic around here recently, so, you should probably drive over and take a look.”
So, before I came back to China, I went over to their place. Their daughter was adopted from India, and, on that visit I learned, they had adopted two other kids—two refugees.
The two children are from Eritrea. I expect some of you may never have even heard of Eritrea. If you look at a list of countries by press freedom, Eritrea is at the very bottom. It’s a dictatorship with a horrible record on human rights. The country has been in a state of war for years. So, most kids there don’t receive much of an education.
The two kids they’d adopted were in their late teens but had only received a fifth grade education. Their education was extremely limited. This is according to the professor. They had no idea what a dinosaur was, or what chemistry is. They had spent most of their lives in a refugee camp, with very little to do but play soccer. Eventually, an NGO helped place the kids with the professor in the United States. Because of their lack of education, she had her work cut out for her, finding a place for the kids to go to school, maybe a place to work.
When I got there, the professor’s husband told me that his wife would be back late, since she was taking the kids to a soccer tournament at their school. The kids loved soccer.
This is the “white left” that I know. These husband-and-wife professors were the typical “white left.” They did not hesitate to practice what they preach.
This is one of my classmates. When I hear “white left,” I think of people like her. Her area of research is feminism. She has worked with many feminist organizations while, at the same time, doing research and writing papers. The picture shows one of her projects, organizing women with lower socioeconomic status to produce zines. The process empowers these women and gives them a sense of belonging; and it’s a way to let others hear what they have to say.
This is something I’ve come across recently: the New Hope Foundation, based in Shunyi District in Beijing. The founders are two Australians — Australian “white left.” They came to China to open an orphanage to take in abused and abandoned children. It’s not rare for these kind of “white left” to come to China for similar projects.
I’m thinking of another professor, too — classic “white left.” First day of a university seminar, we introduce ourselves, say our names, our background, interests, things like that… But this professor wanted us to give our pronouns.
In Chinese, the he, she and it [她, 他 and 它] all have the same sound, “ta.” In English, you have he/him, she/her, or they/them, or even the fairly recently invented ze/zir.
Why should we choose our own pronouns? If you’ve never considered the question before, it’s a bit difficult to comprehend. We think someone that looks male is a he and someone that looks female is a she. But gender identity is not that simple. Some would prefer to use neutral pronouns.
I’m not sure what kind of reaction you’ll have, if you’re not familiar with the idea. This is a very “white left” thing.
Maybe you admire the idea of neutral pronouns — it acknowledges the diversity of gender identity. But, for me, at least, it was a bit awkward at first. It struck me, the idea of emphasizing so strongly one’s own gender identity.
These are examples of what comes to mind when I think of “white left.” Some of these things, I find them admirable or touching, and some make me slightly uncomfortable — but I don’t find any of it unreasonable.
Looking at these people as a whole, these real world white left, they tend to be fairly “privileged” [tequanyishi 特权意识].
Now, I don’t mean “privileged” like we use it in Chinese, like “My dad is Li Gang” [in 2010, a kid, driving drunk, ran down two university students and, when nabbed by security guards, proclaimed: “My dad is Li Gang” / “我爸是李刚.” His father was the deputy director of the local Public Security Bureau] that type of thing. The “white left” like to say, “Our group is privileged” or “Check your privilege.”
What does that mean? All of us present here today probably have privilege. What’s meant by that is that many people did not enjoy the same benefits that you’ve had in your life.
I want everyone to watch a short video. This is a good demonstration of what the “white left” mean by privilege.
[The video is on Youtube: $100 to the winner of the race.]
If you do your undergrad at an American university, there’s a good chance that your professor will say something similar. Why are the “white left” such bleeding hearts? Why do they care about those they see as disadvantaged? This is what they have been taught since they were young.
Since they were young, they have been taught the existence of structural inequalities. So, we should keep in mind those without privilege, those that did not receive equal treatment…
I just mentioned Islam. I came across this essay recently.
This is an interview with the director of UN Women [I believe this is where these quotes are from: 割礼与 me too，我们离性别暴力有多远？专访联合国妇女署副执行主任普里. And they seem to be here, in English: It is the human right of women to be free from violence in all its forms, says UN Women’s Lakshmi Puri]. I think her viewpoints represent the “white left” view of Islam.
She stressed that culture and religion cannot be used to excuse violence against women. She talked about her opposition to child marriage, female circumcision and other violence against women in Islam. But she noted that the religious directive to wear a veil is not an example of violence against women, and is simply a religious symbol.
Why is what the label describes so different from reality?
As you’ve seen, the definition of “white left” is far different from what the “white left” really are.
How does that happen? The reason for it is mainly: fake news [jia xinwen 假新闻].
So much fake news is being spread about black people, vulnerable groups, LGBT people and Muslims — Zhihu is the source of much of it.
This is my friend Bei Da Fei [北大飞]. He is certainly “white left.” One of his causes is refuting fake news stories. Not long ago, a story came out that a student had written BlackLivesMatter [heiminggui 黑命贵] a hundred times on his Stanford application — they accepted him. The story [and the story is true, by the way, but he was an academic beast, had given a Ted talk and met Obama, and was already accepted by several other Ivy League schools and wanted to make a point] was spread as evidence of “white left” ideology in American schools. Be Da Fei decided to spread the truth about the story [his effort to refute the fake news is here].
Project C [C计划]’s Lan Fang [蓝方] also wrote a similar piece [you can find it here]. It was about Meituan’s halal option [see: New ‘halal’ option on food delivery app puts China’s social media users in a stew] and the promise that all halal dishes would be kept in a separate container but also covered a hoax involving a Canadian mayor refusing to take pork off school menus [see: This Hoax About A Canadian Mayor’s Insulting Response To Muslim Parents Keeps Coming Back]. This was a very successful piece of fake news that spread far enough that I even saw it quoted in a paper by a well-known journalism professor. The influence of this fake news can’t be overstated.
The second reason is that the label is thrown around so frequently in discussions online.
People will attach the white left label to anybody that they disagree with. The results can be amusing.
For example, after George W. Bush made a speech with criticisms of Trump, people started accusing Bush, John McCain and other Republican leaders that were unenthusiastic about Trump’s leadership of being “white left.” In order to slander those that were seen to be attacking Trump, people were willing to tar conservative elements of the Republican Party with the “white left” label.
Another example is the upvotes received by this Zhihu post. The poster says that the “white left” believes that China should be sanctioned because it is not democratic. The “white left media,” she says, describes China as having designs on neighboring states. This is absurd, since those that criticize China’s human rights record and suggest sanctions tend to be the most hawkish elements within the American Democratic and Republic. These factions, especially conservative elements within the Republic Party, are from from “white left.” But this post has received thousands of upvotes! What’s going on here is that the poster simply slapped the “white left” label on something that they don’t like.
Su Xiaohe [苏小和] is a relatively famous intellectual that is known for being a figure of the anti-white left.
He wrote an essay, “How the American white left brings down Chinese scholars” [the essay is here]. In the piece, he refers to Ayn Rand [安兰德] and John Rawls [罗尔斯] as gurus of the “white left” [“baizuo” de zongshi “白左”的宗师]. If you know anything about Rand and Rawls, you might be surprised by that claim. Perhaps a case could be made for Rawls having “white left” sympathies — but Ayn Rand? She is a libertarian through and through. In Su Xiaohe’s essay, a figure of the far right is called a guru of the “white left.”
Looking at these examples, it would seem that many do not understand what “white left” means when they apply the label; they don’t know the roots of the term; and they simply apply it to anyone that they don’t like or that they disagree with.
Another major reason is our current social attitudes [shehui xintai 社会心态].
Social attitudes came up when we talked about how the label spread. The social attitude in question here that has helped stigmatize the “white left” is social Darwinism [shehui Da’erwenzhuyi 社会达尔文主义].
Social Darwinism sees our society as governed by biological rules of evolution, and the idea of the survival of the fittest. The strong eat the weak — the law of the jungle. Those that believe in social Darwinism might also enjoy the sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem [reviews of Liu Cixin’s 刘慈欣 book in English have not mentioned this, as far as I can tell, and I’ve never read the book, but, it’s a theme in Chinese-language criticism and discussion: 话说为什么会有很多人用三体来吹社会达尔文主义].
If our society is ruled by the law of the jungle — what sense is there in having sympathy, in caring for other people? Anyone that cannot get by will be swept into the dustbin of history.
Let’s look at two other descriptions of the white left from the anti-white left. This person says: the “white left” are “stupid white people from the developed nations of the West that have never had to worry about material concerns.” The idea is that since these people grew up with a social safety net and welfare programs, they never had to develop common sense.
One interesting part of this is the idea of “common human knowledge” [renlei changshi 人类常识 — human common sense?]. Think about that for a moment. What do you think it means?
In his opinion, it’s common sense that our society’s welfare system should be imperfect: we should have to worry about how we clothe and feed ourselves, we should suffer, we should go hungry… What should our society be like? We should be in constant, violent competition with each other.
There’s a similar post on Zhihu that has received tens of thousands of upvotes. The post says that highly educated Chinese people are generally more aware of the outside world than Western elites and that young people in China are also less insulated from the harsh realities of the real world. Therefore, the poster says, the “white left” is more rare in China.
Let me see how well you followed the argument. What does the author mean by “harsh realities”?
According to whoever wrote this, we live in a world that is incredibly cruel and governed by the law of the jungle. In this sort of environment, caring for the weak and calling for equality is naive and unrealistic.
Is human society really a jungle?
I’ll refer here to an essay by a verified Guoke author Ent.
He recently wrote an essay entitled “The world is not a jungle, people are not weeds” [世界不是丛林，人不是野草]. Ent’s background as a biologist gives him an interesting point of view on this question.
In his essay, he makes the point that, in the natural world, the rule of survival of the fittest applies, but asks if the same must apply to our society. As he says in the essay: “We have already proposed and debated and tried many ways of organizing society … The fact is that a society removed from the law of the jungle will be happier and more efficient. A society governed purely by the law of the jungle allows class positions to solidify. Poverty is passed on from generation to generation. An individual born into those circumstances bears no responsibility for them. … So-called law of the jungle means that the weak are worthless, meaningless and deserve suffering and death. This law separates the strong and the weak into two clear categories that can never understand each other, can never co-operate, cannot learn from each other, and cannot change. … But that is not how our world works, and we should never go down that road.”
Ent has revealed himself to be “white left.” And I very much agree with his point. But what relationship does human society have to the theory of evolution and the natural world’s law of survival of the fittest? That’s something worth considering.
I feel as if Chinese people live in a society that lacks knowledge of other races and cultures. From a young age, most of us grow up in an environment that is more than 90% Han Chinese. We have no idea what the lives of the country’s ethnic minorities are like. We are completely unlike Americans who receive a multi-racial, multicultural education from a young age.
Of course, the anti-”white left” is fairly diverse. It includes market fundamentalists [shichang yuanjiaozhizhuyizhe 市场原教旨主义者] like Li Shuo, and maybe some conservatives that sympathize with the American Republican Party, probably some Han Chauvinists [dahanzuzhuyizhe 大汉族主义者], too — and we’re going to use one label to link them together.
The group also includes some industralizers [gongyedang 工业党], those that believe our most important task right now is to develop and modernize industry. Nothing should stand in the way of development, according to them, and problems like air pollution are simply the cost of pushing forward with that development. If you call for environmental protection legislation, you are “white left.” Since development necessitates some pollution, trying to protect the environment is the same as trying to halt China’s development. So, tentatively, another label: industrializers.
Various social attitudes have contributed to the creation and application of the “white left” label.
What are the “white left”’s actual problems?
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m mostly in agreement with the views of the “white left.” But I think they do have some problems, so, what are they?
First, I think that the “white left” can become an elitist echo chamber. As I said, if you go to an American university campus, you won’t have a problem finding the “white left.” Whether faculty or students, you will hear similar opinions. The reality is that there is not a plurality of views, and what seems to be an issue with understanding other perspectives. For those reasons, opportunities for discussion are limited.
In the United States, people have started using the term “snow flakes” to describe those on the “white left.” The suggestion is that those on the “white left” are as fragile as snow flakes. They live a sheltered life and, so, even if they have high ideals, they have a limited understanding of how those ideas could be put into practice.
I’m not sure if that criticism really holds true… But elements of it would seem to apply. Those on the “white left” generally breathe rarefied air, and sometimes lack knowledge of the world outside of their bubble.
But the most important problem that the “white left” has is with “identity politics” [shenfenzhengzhi 身份政治].
What exactly is meant by identity politics? Basically, when discussing an issue, someone first asks themselves, “What is my identity?” and then, “What should be done, based on that?” In other words, using identity to determine point of view, rather than other, more substantial considerations.
This is an essay I’m very fond of, which appeared in the New York Times [“The Dying Art of Disagreement”]. It was written by a conservative. Although the Times is seen as a paper of the “white left,” it is home to several columnists writing from the right.
This essay is a repudiation of identity politics. Stephens writers: “Then we get to college, where the dominant mode of politics is identity politics, and in which the primary test of an argument isn’t the quality of the thinking but the cultural, racial or sexual standing of the person making it. As a woman of color I think X. As a gay man I think Y. As a person of privilege I apologize for Z. This is the baroque way Americans often speak these days. It is a way of replacing individual thought — with all the effort that actual thinking requires — with social identification — with all the attitude that attitudinizing requires.”
In the United States now, people talk about “safe spaces” [anquan kongjian 安全空间]. A “safe space” is a place where discussion is restricted or censored. The “safe space” is not truly safe — it simply allows one to avoid certain opinions. Instead of being a place to talk about problems, it becomes a place to avoid thinking about them. Those that can’t avoid certain topics may be suspected of being discriminatory.
The final result of using identity as a guideline for debate and opinion is that it leads us to tagging things that we don’t like as such-and-such-ism or such-and-such-phobia. What we lose when we retreat into “safe spaces” is the opportunity for debate and the chance to convince, or to be convinced by, someone else.
Stephens’ argument is convincing. In the “white left” ideology, the problem is often that people advance identity issues to the detriment of real discussion. If identity is the starting point and the basis of the conversation, it is hard to bring in other opinions for consideration.
Stephens’ final point is this: “It’s a game at which two can play. In the United States, the so-called ‘alt-right’ justifies its white-identity politics in terms that are coyly borrow from the progressive left. One of the more dismaying features of last year’s election was the extent to which ‘white working class’ became a catchall identity for people whose travails we were supposed to pity but whose habits or beliefs we were not supposed to criticize.”
Of course — I can’t stress this enough — identity politics are not the invention of the “white left.” It’s the result of certain historical conditions in the United States that identity plays such an outsized role. The history of racism in America is all about identity, too: “You’re black, so you have to sit at the back of the bus.” That’s identity politics, too.
Let’s return to Chinese social networks for a few more examples.
This is another massively upvoted Zhihu post. The author writes: “I’m certainly not a committed Trump supporter but it feels as if the left has driven me to the right-wing. … Today, in Berkeley (everyone knows that Berkeley is a hot bed of the American ‘white left’), here in the United States, the birthplace of free speech, I didn’t dare speak my mind because I knew that if did, I ran the risk of being cursed at by thousands of my fellow students.”
Now, I don’t know whether or not those fears were well founded, but I understand the author’s apprehension at that moment. I suspect it’s like the feeling I have, sympathetic to the “white left,” when I think about posting something that disagrees with the Zhihu hive mind.
To be honest, I very rarely post on Zhihu about American politics or anything like that. I didn’t dare post on Zhihu to promote this lecture. I was worried someone might come over and make a scene. I feel like identity politics and labels are topics that cause a polarization of opinion, so I tend to avoid them. I joked with a few friends that I was risking my life giving this talk.
Do you remember Gui Qi Mingrimiao? He was the one that edited the entry on “white left.”
There’s a post on Zhihu, asking a question — and it’s a bit of a leading question: “Did the film Moonlight win an Oscar on its own merits or because of political correctness?”
Gui Qi Mingrimiao responds: “The white left, according to OP: a politically correct film is a good film and should win awards. OP’s thinking: if a politically correct film wins a prize it’s only because it’s politically correct. So, both the OP and their white left agree: the only way to judge a film is whether or not it’s politically correct. In conclusion: OP and the white left share the same value system.”
So, the author of the post’s reason for asking is because he thinks that the film won only because it’s politically correct, and his “white left” strawman thinks that the film should win because it’s politically correct. Therefore, neither side cares about the artistic qualities of the film but jump immediately to identity politics and political correctness.
This is something a friend of mine that’s at Berkeley posted to a group chat. I’m using it here without their permission.
He says: “If someone crosses the line in conversation, someone else will say that they’re triggered. You’ll have people saying the person is racist, sexist, homophobic, white supremacist. I’ve seen it many times.” At the same time, he says: “If someone crosses a different line in conversation, they’ll be accused of political correctness or being a ‘bleeding heart’ or ‘white left.’ I’ve seen that many times, too. In attempting to discuss things without falling prey to the tendency to political correctness, we can’t simply let racism, sexism, misogyny or homophobia run rampant. Instead, it is necessary to pay attention to context. Discussion participants have to be willing to exchange ideas, develop understanding of people with differing opinions, identities, positions and prejudices. I think this is a topic that’s important for everyone to think about.”
The secret danger behind stigmatizing “white left”
Finally, I want to return to events that have captured our attention over the past several days: Beijing’s wide-scale expulsion of its “low-end population” [diduan renkou 低端人口 — see: Beijing’s cruel eviction of its migrant workers is a stain on China’s urbanisation drive].
I quite like this essay by Cheng Yinghong [程映虹’s piece is here 「低端人口」 — — 社會達爾文主義政治的不祥之兆 — must read writing on the evictions, widely shared]. Professor Cheng has written about racism in China and social Darwinism before [see: Is Peking Man Still Our Ancestor?” — Genetics, Anthropology, and the Politics of Racial Nationalism in China]. This essay is about how the expulsion of the “low-end population” is a sign of things to come with social Darwinism in China.
“Low-end population” is typical social Darwinist vocabulary. Cheng says: “In a society smitten with social Darwinism, the idea of egalitarianism will meet with confusion, suspicion and derision.” That’s something that’s worth considering.
Are we living in a society like that?
That way of thinking is certainly present in discussions of this “low-end population.”
For example: “If they don’t like it, they should get out of Beijing.”
“Society rewards the strong; the weak are eliminated. Workers like this are weakest members of society, so they will take the smallest share of the pie. That is the way of the world.”
I feel like this is exactly the kind of thinking that we saw with the anti-”white left.” It’s the same social Darwinist thinking that says the strong will triumph and the weak will be crushed. When the workers are given hours notice to leave, they must go — it’s normal.
I saw a female student from Renmin University posting on Weibo after the evictions in Beijing. She was being criticized for saying that she thought the expulsion of the “low-end population” was justified. As she was being flamed, she very patiently argued her point. Do you know what that point was? Here’s what she said: “The government is a heartless machine. Beijing isn’t Beijing — it’s the capital city and it must develop, and as it develops it will weed out those too weak to survive. For you, it is hopeless; it is the same for me. All I can do is fight to postpone my elimination;” “I’m sympathetic, but what good does that do? We can’t swim against the current. I can’t help those people. I can only try to save myself from the same fate.”
I think this is a very typical way of thinking. This female student has accepted the tenets of social Darwinism. She is not a bad person; she does not want to harm or exploit anybody; she believes that this is a reasonable state of affairs that cannot and should not be altered; and she believes that all she can do is make herself stronger, so that she can avoid the fate of the weak. As for those swept into the dustbin of history, well, sorry, I feel bad but what can I do? Why didn’t you try harder?
That’s the logic behind it — but is it the kind of logic we need right now? Should a student at a top Beijing university be thinking that way?
To sum things up here, the “white left” label that’s become so popular in China has almost nothing to do with White Western people. It reflects attitudes in Chinese society.
I think that how we view the attitudes and opinions that we label as “white left” will determine the direction that our society goes. Can we hold onto sympathy and empathy? Can we show concern for the disadvantaged and the weak? Do we need to abandon our society to the law of the jungle? Do we need to give up cultural diversity? Should identity and labels override reality and facts?