On March 19, Fox News host Tucker Carlson spiritedly disparaged U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken for supposedly embarrassing the United States in his lack of aggression during his meetings with Chinese delegates. Later in his segment, Carlson belittled Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York for cautioning against spurring hate crimes against people of Asian descent through the use of the term “China virus.” All this built up to Carlson’s introduction of the term “baizuo,” which he claims—in part by misrepresenting scholar Chenchen Zhang as part of Chinese state media—is what Chinese people call weak, impressionable U.S. liberals, and he warns that China’s government perceives U.S. weakness and seeks to take advantage of it.
Baizuo (白左, literally “white left”) has been around for 10 years or so—but it rose to greater prominence in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency in 2017. It means something like “woke”—as said in a sneering tone by conservative critics of progressives. Today, it is a ubiquitous insult used on China’s internet, hurled at anyone whose views can be framed as laughably naive or directly in conflict with social stability and national security. But depending on which side of the Pacific Ocean—or of the U.S.-China conflict—you’re on, just which nation you’re talking about can differ sharply.
Originally bai (白, “white”) was mostly a reference to race, and the term was more subtle. DD Yang, co-host of popular Mandarin language pop culture podcast Loud Murmurs, said the first time she heard the term baizuo, it was used to describe a group of U.S. students who indulged in poverty tourism to pad their resumes. “Baizuo evokes white liberals from rich countries with imperialistic pasts who have shallow, simple moralistic views about the world. There’s always an undertone of hypocrisy, privilege, and self-righteousness,” Yang said.
But that meaning soon shifted. The “white” came not to mean race but to refer to naivety or ignorance. It wasn’t long before Yang herself was called “baizuo” by the same people who made fun of narcissistic white saviors.
“I was called baizuo on Weibo during the lead up to the 2016 presidential election for not supporting Trump, and it was very hurtful because it was implied that my causes are not genuine and that I was trying to act white, like I forgot who I was,” she said.
Anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) diaspora Chinese, especially Trump supporters, use the term against those who don’t support Western conservative causes or politicians. Baizuo gets deployed in particular against anyone seen as putting progressive values ahead of being Chinese—which, in the mind of conservative immigrants, often includes people like Asian supporters of Black Lives Matter. Due to the association with Trump, some writers have attributed the popularity of the term to the United States’ failed engagement with China, a kind of toughened pragmatism driven by anti-CCP sentiments. Chinese Trump supporters in the United States certainly seemed drawn to his supposedly tough attitude. Trump is viewed by his Chinese fans as a powerful strongman singularly focused on his own survival and dominance, who alone has the resolve to clash with the CCP while a baizuo in his position would be ineffectual and weak.
For the anti-CCP faction in the United States, the “left” is interpreted very literally—and mapped onto the politics of China itself, where left generally meant Maoist and right free-market advocates or anti-Maoist figures. In a tweet, U.S.-based dissident writer Cao Changqing compared the Black Lives Matter movement to the Cultural Revolution and protesters to the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution who wreaked havoc across China.
My parents, who lived through the Cultural Revolution as teenagers, explained to me the generational scars that produced such irrational logic among Cao’s generation in the Chinese diaspora. The shallow similarities of social unrest and disorderly conduct in large-scale protests today triggered waves of trauma for Chinese people whose lives were derailed by the harrowing madness and aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. For them, idealism evokes the passionate, deadly, often hypocritical Maoist fervor of the Cultural Revolution, and so any mention of lifting up marginalized people and destroying the status quo today is interpreted as preamble for a breakdown of all social order. To them, baizuo ideology isn’t just silly but dangerous, and it threatens the relative stability and prosperity they’ve come to enjoy.
But this set of affiliations is only the case for anti-CCP users abroad. In the mainland, where it’s used most, the word is slung mostly by pro-CCP speakers attacking liberals seen as being brainwashed by foreigners or too concerned with human rights. In both cases, it’s an attack on those who put issues of justice and identity ahead of the demands of national greatness.
The sense of racial betrayal is often used by staunch CCP supporters deploying the term in China. “When Chinese nationalists use the term baizuo, they try to convey a sense of competition, in that white people have been the hegemon of the world for so long but now China is rising. So we Chinese people will take control of the world and take over the hegemony,” said Yao Lin, a political scientist at Yale Law School.
When a person or a cause is labeled “baizuo” in China, they are often mocked over their concern for the negative effects caused by China’s ascension on the world stage. At the height of China’s tech- and real estate-fueled boom in the 2010s, those who questioned the morality behind the mechanics of rapid growth were frequently seen as too weak stomached and short sighted to understand the necessity in growing strong at any cost. It was “no pain, no gain” on steroids.
In the enormously popular The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu, the central idea of the series is the zero-sum game of geopolitical Darwinism: Dominate or be dominated. Perhaps the books owe their popularity to a widely accepted belief in China that a clash of nations is inevitable, and the best way forward is to crush all distractions that keep China’s people from melding into one unbreakable monolith.
By this mindset, the United States and Europe accrued their wealth and power through ruthless imperialism and exploitation and are now weakening due to too much attention paid to privileged considerations of multiculturalism and human rights. That’s a mistake, nationalists argue, that China must not make. This line of thinking has inevitably led to the coining of the less common term huangzuo (黄左, “yellow left”), which refers to an overly idealistic Chinese liberal chasing the same useless dreams of multiculturalism and equality as the white liberals who fell from the top of the world for being too soft. Anti-baizuoism is a vow to not lose focus and make the same mistake.
There was an odd crossover between the two forms of nationalism this week. In the wake of Carlson’s segment, numerous Chinese Weibo users expressed pleasant surprise to see their own lingo deployed against “Bai Deng,” a pun on U.S. President Joe Biden’s name using the same character for “white” from “baizuo.” They saw Biden’s relatively measured rhetoric as a kind of national betrayal in the same way baizuos in China are viewed as having forgotten what best serves themselves and their own country. Trump, in contrast, was perceived as a strongman who happened to be on the other side.
And for many users, there’s one final aspect—an ugly, sexist tone. Baizuo is frequently paired with another term: shengmubiao (圣母婊, “holy mother bitch”)—a particularly gendered way of accusing somebody of being woke. When baizuo is leveraged against men, it takes on a distinctly emasculating tone. In this framing, the silly, overly sentimental issues soft-hearted women care about are worthless when compared to domination and elimination of weaknesses. Whether it’s support of Trump or support of Chinese President Xi Jinping, slinging baizuo around is an affirmation of the users’ own longing to put power first.
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.