“Left” (左) in Chinese is a tricky word. Chinese will sometimes refer to themselves as “left” when they mean “patriotic” or “nationalistic”; someone might say, “I’ve been very leftist since I was a kid,” when they actually mean “I’ve been very patriotic since I was a kid.” More than one self-identified Chinese leftist will feel the need to clarify that “By leftist, I mean I identify with the Western left, not the Chinese left,” to explain that they are not Chinese nationalists.
“Baizuo” (白左)—literally “White Left”—is one of the stranger insults arising on the Chinese internet over the last two years. Equivalent to something like “libtard,” “leftard,” or maybe even “Social Justice Warrior” in English, it scoffs at those who are too concerned with the environment, rights for ethnic minorities, immigrants, or the LGBTQ community. As in the U.S., the insult indicates a too-narrow focus on “bleeding-heart” issues, to the exclusion of larger, more salient questions, such as those of the nation-state.
And so, it is ironic that at least some Chinese nationalist critics of “baizuo” may also refer to themselves as “left,” though Mao did speak of the “Sinicization of Marxism.” There continue to be some labor uprisings led by Maoist activists, as in the recent Jasic protests, but much of what refers to itself as “left” in China is simply a form of Chinese nationalism rather than internationalist leftism, per se; concern for social issues such as minority rights and environmental issues is often left behind.
Indeed, there is a sharp anti-immigrant and anti-minority bias to those who invoke “baizuo” as an insult, since immigration can be seen as a threat to the nation-state, framed as an obvious concern that “baizuo” fail to notice. The word “baizuo” itself indicates a racialized view of the world, an attempt by Chinese nationalists to “reclaim” what they see as the “left” back from what they see as Western aberrations. There are Chinese nationalists who do not claim to be leftists—neo-Confucians, or Han ethnic nationalists—but as the joke goes among Chinese critics of contemporary Chinese nationalism, there are those who seem to think that Marx was Chinese.
It’s hard to pin down the exact etymology of terms that originate on the internet, but “baizuo” appears to have come from “白痴”, meaning “idiot” or “idiotic,” rather than “white” (as in Caucasian). Even so, it has become the view among some nationalistic Chinese netizens that the white Western world is particularly prone to the “baizuo” mentality.
Just as American and European liberal politicians and activists are mocked for their excessive concern with global warming and immigrants’ rights, activists in China concerned with social justice issues are derided for their “baizuo” mentality. Meanwhile, illiberal politicians such as America’s Donald Trump are held up as admirable models of leadership, with the qualities that Chinese should hope for in their own leaders, however paradoxically; Chinese nationalists admire American nationalist leaders such as Trump, even as Trump steers America towards confrontation with China.
“Baizuo” also corresponds to “libtard” because “baizuo” are viewed as intellectuals, who value fancy, abstract and unrealizable ideals more than they do concrete reality. People professing such ideals are often highly educated, having studied in Western academic contexts. Or they may speak in a manner far removed from everyday life—using a large number of English loanwords, for example, or language highly influenced by critical theory.
It has not totally escaped Chinese nationalists that their perspectives hew quite closely to the American Alt-Right’s critique of the left, as observed in the phenomenon of Chinese fans of Jordan Peterson. And underscoring the strange transnationalism that exists among such nationalists, Peterson fans have also found something to value in Chinese “baizuo” discourse; Peterson’s book is due to be released in Chinese translation. It remains to be seen whether this will win him a loyal fanbase in China.
There are parallels in other places in the Sinophone world. The Hong Kong phrase “zuojiao”, which later spread to Taiwan, has a similar meaning, originating in pro-independence Hong Kong localists critical of social justice activists blithely unmindful of significant threats to Hong Kong sovereignty from Chinese encroachment, or leftism simply disguising Chinese nationalism. As an insult, “Zuojiao” literally means “left plastic,” “jiao” or “plastic” sounding like Cantonese for “penis”.
In Hong Kong, however, because pro-Beijing political actors refer to themselves as “left,” Hong Kong localists refer to themselves as “right.” Though localists are infamous for opposition to even Chinese asylum seekers in Hong Kong, this stance is not true of all localists, and some of those who publicly refer to themselves as “right” would probably still be thought of as closer to the political left in another context. Either way, one does not see the same struggle over the claiming the term “leftism” in Hong Kong.
In Taiwan, on the other hand, pro-independence stances are aligned with the political left. The ruling Kuomintang regime was both pro-unification and right-wing, so independence ideology became aligned with leftist conceptualizations of self-determination through struggle against right-wing authoritarianism. Here, “zuojiao” often misses the forest for the trees, particularly among western-educated leftist academics who brandish critical theory in order to nitpick from the sidelines about any activist position with which they may slightly disagree.
The abstruse language of leftist academics can be too far removed from real-life concerns, and just as the age-old questions about theory versus praxis are always on the table, Chinese intellectuals have long been highly aware of the fraught nature of relating abstract knowledge to concrete, lived experience. In the the Sinophone world this schism is especially salient because “left” and “right” are political distinctions that were introduced with the development of the modern nation-state—indeed, originating in the French Revolution. “Left” and “right” entered Asia hand-in-hand as the by-products of Western imperial powers forcing Asia open to Western development, which in turn marked the forcible entrance of Western modernity into Asia.
The irony of Asia is that historically, many Asian countries can be neatly divided into authoritarian countries which claim to be leftist, like China, or Vietnam, which remains ruled by the Vietnamese Communist Party, and authoritarian countries marked by the deep suspicion and state-sponsored persecution of leftism—as in say, Kuomintang rule in Taiwan, or the New Order in Indonesia. It may be that such distinctions are no longer valid, with nationalism having proven paramount even for those from countries whose regimes have historically declared themselves to be “leftist” in nature.
However, to return to the weird phenomenon of Chinese nationalist fans of Jordan Peterson and Peterson fans finding something to admire in “baizuo” discourse, it may be that right-wing nationalists are simply searching for foreign equivalents to validate their political response. Chinese nationalists backing an authoritarian state under Xi Jinping, Donald Trump supporters calling for restrictions on immigration in the United States, and Brexit supporters in the United Kingdom are all right-wing nationalists who may well see themselves as kindred spirits.
The emergence of parallel terms such as “baizuo” and “libtard” is no mistake, and it points to a challenge for the international left with respect to its oldest issues: translating abstract intellectual knowledge and convictions into real, lived experience and action.