13 July 2017

The prokeimenon in the Sixth Tone – let us attend

Apologies for the bad Orthodox pun there. The article published recently by Dylan Levi King in Sixth Tone, on the ‘baizuo 白左’ or ‘white left’ insult amongst Chinese netizens and who uses it, is a much-needed addendum and corrective to the foregoing commentary on the phenomenon. Long story short: in Mr King’s telling, it’s not Chinese Trump fans who are dishing out most of these critiques of the Western ‘white left’. It’s Chinese leftists themselves.

This is why it is so important to remember that, from what data we have, China’s political life runs for many intents and purposes perpendicular to ours. According to the study by Jennifer Pan and Xu Yiqing, China’s left, though it is every bit as hostile to neoliberalism, privatisation, ‘free trade’ and market fundamentalism as the Western left is, is nonetheless well out-of-sync with ‘left’ or ‘liberal’ priorities on a broad array of other issues. Broadly speaking, Chinese leftists tend to emphasise the value of folk medicine and folk beliefs, sexual continence and restraint, traditional gender roles, a strong military presence and cultural distinctiveness. King acknowledges this explicitly: ‘although Liu and his acolytes tend to evince a certain discomfort with hallmarks of Western progressive thought — such as gay marriage and the decriminalization of drug use — they are mostly sympathetic to the struggles of marginalized groups’.

King makes a point in this essay that I have been making for a long while now, which is that China at the grassroots level is a politically- and intellectually-intriguing place – far, far more so than the official media organs or at Western mainstream media would suggest. And the fact that the ‘white left’ is indeed drawing such criticism should not be taken as comfort by the nouvelle nouvelle-droite. There is indeed a certain admiration for Trump among the pro-government groups in China, but he is far from being broadly liked. Even the cautious optimism many of China’s leftists may have felt about Trump’s ‘pragmatism’ where rights-and-democracy talk was concerned, has long since worn off.

More to the point, consider that even left-conservative thinkers like Wang Hui take a historical view that has little in common with the ideological preferences of the nouvelle nouvelle-droite. To give one historical example, in Wang Hui’s view (and, indeed, in the view of many ordinary Chinese people, my wife included), the Korean War – still officially called the Great Movement to Resist America and Aid Korea 抗美援朝運動 – was a justifiable war of defence, undertaken by the Chinese people themselves against an aggressive imperialist power. For their part, the American and European alt-right – if pressed – takes the common view that their nations’ involvement in that war as a valid expression of the national interest, or more moralistically as part of the effort to stop the spread of communist ideology. The irony is that the alt-right often does a fairly good job of accounting for differences in cultural outlook and history in forming political awareness – but that awareness seems to fly straight out a window when they fancy they see a nationalist ally of convenience against globalism. At the very least, it’s irresponsible and an exercise in wishful thinking, to believe (as many alt-right China watchers now seem to) that history and ideology don’t shape the formation of popular opinion in deep ways. As King says, the current outcry against the ‘white left’ is best interpreted as ‘a throwback to earlier movements in Chinese political thought’. Such a view is at least consistent with past experience and with contemporary government preferences.

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