bookmark_borderSinica Podcast – “liberal” Chinese Trump supporters

这个问题困扰我很久。之前我埋头看了一坨文章,然后自己写了一个心得。我的结论是,liberal 理想是很困难的,很多人没有真正接受 liberalism,出了个川普就感觉解放了,因此当他是救世主。另外 liberalism 我感觉也是个 spectrum,并不是非黑即白的,对于一些人不够 liberal 的方面,应该予以帮助,但是 cancel culture 很容易 alienate 他们。

前周的 Sinica Podcast 讨论这个问题,听得我感觉醍醐灌顶。在此记录一下节目里说的。

Yao: 中国的 liberal 支持川普现象,不是 “敌人的敌人是我朋友” 策略,因为他们支持川普的时候贸易战什么的都没开始呢。也不是 neo-liberalism affinity,你看像郭于华这样的为劳工争取权益的教授,你不能说她是 neo-liberalist。这个现象要用灯塔现象解释:

Political beaconism: 中国的自由派,以美国为榜样。他们其实是有意无意地 sanitize 了美国的情况。结果现在美国左派不给中国作榜样,尽在自我批评,这让中国自由派不能向中国人宣传民主了。所以看到川普批评美国左派他们很支持。

Civilizational beaconism: 清朝末年中国人最早接触西方的时候,和先进科技一起接受的是当时的殖民主义思想。你看梁启超的文章可以看到白人至上主义。然后经过一个世纪的战争和政治动荡,中国的人文学科没有得到发展,中国的思想界从来没有反思(甚至意识到)殖民思想的问题。因此很多中国知识分子支持西方的右派,觉得穆斯林移民到欧洲是很可怕的事情。

林垚还分析了白左这个词的用法。他以《三体》的读者推广了 “白莲花” 说法,指出中国人反对 political activism 经常是和厌女联系在一起的。白左这个词还有一个隐含的意思就是要搞这些只有白人可以。(因此在网上用来骂中国人很有效。)

我觉得他的分析太有道理了。虽然我常常看到 “白左”,我没有想得这么清楚过。另外我有时候会看见 “灯塔国” 这个说法,一直不确定它的含义和来源。“白莲花” 也是我偶尔会看到感觉是对女性不友好的词,从来没有查过是什么意思。我对网上的用语的理解一直是很脱节的,后来有了 GFW 之后我被迫不太上外网了,渐渐对一些词熟悉了一些。但是我的理解果然还是很缺乏。林垚这样又理解,又能以正常讨论的思路分析的,实在太少见了。他是怎么做到能呆在微信群里看 pro Trump 阴谋论而不和人争论然后爆炸的呢?

下面是我的……这是什么?这不是 transcription,是不够精准的 transcription,反正就是记录吧。

主持人:K – Kaiser Kuo; J – Jeremy Goldkorn. 嘉宾: Y – 林垚; I – Ian Johnson.

K: What is Liberalism in the Chinese context?

J: Liberal in the US context means a range of people from Joe Biden to Chomsky (?). But in the rest of the world it has a much limited meaning.

I: In the US, liberal often means dissidents. But simply being against the CCP doesn’t mean you are a liberal. You can be against the government for a number of reasons. It can simply be the love of freedom, and less government control, which is the classical liberalism. One of the things that unites a lot of these people is contrarianism. They are skeptical of the perceived wisdom. They want to support the person who is most troublesome. They think there is always another side to things.

Y: In Europe liberal has a more right leaning meaning than in the US. In China, ‘自由派’ basically we can define it a bit more broadly. In China, I think generally liberalism consists of a few beliefs: belief in constitutional right, belief in competitive multi-party electoral system. I think these two are shared among all Chinese liberalism. There are other particular beliefs, aversion to Mao-ist planned economy, they believe in the market economy, but still thinks some government control is necessary. Another trait of Chinese liberalism is being against narrow-minded or military Chinese nationalism, who assert that it’s China’s time to rise etc..

J: What are some egregious examples of Chinese intellectuals actively favoring Trump now? Who are some of the critics of the CCP that are in favor of Trump?

Y: For example 郭于华, a professor of Tsinghua University, who I admire very much, has supported Trump since 2015 since he announced his running for the presidency. She has been fervently critical to the CCP for many years. She isn’t someone you would describe as neo-liberalism or conservative because she has been advocating for worker’s rights, independent worker’s unions, greater transfer of wealth to the lower class for many years. Another example, Xiao Han, a legal scholar at 政法大学, who recently came out as pro-Trump. He said the turning point is the Hunber Biden hard drive, which made him think the US media is covering up things. Those are the two examples that come to my mind.

K: 郭于华 is a staunch support of 许章润, so it’s very surprising.

I: Yes I know her pretty well. I did a Q&A with her for the New York Review of Books. I was also surprised. I think in her case, there is a little bit of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. She and people like her think that at last the US is awake. Anything that deals the CCP a body blow is good. I think I sort of understand her. But also I don’t understand why she supports someone who is fundamentally anti-democratic. You can support his policies towards China, but you don’t have to support him stock and barrel. The thing that is the most troubling or perplexing is the need to go in whole and hard in support of someone.

K: May I ask a question: why does it matter that some many Chinese intellectuals disproportionally favor Trump?

I: It says something about the intellectual discourse in China, about the poverty of debate in China. Of course you have so many people support Trump in America. Many smart American also voted Trump. (K: name me one.) Maybe also it says a degree of desperation to see people like 郭于华 support Trump. There are other things. Love of conspiracy theories, and also a perverse contrarianism, in some way it’s healthy but also destructive.

Y: I think it matters at least in two ways for China and for the US. Intellectuals are important agencies for public discourses. They invent the terms, set the agendas of discussion, they legitimize certain concepts and ideas, and they steer the direction of the public’s social and political thought. In China, when public intellectuals speak in favor of such a failure, they quickly undermines liberalism in China. For example the ordinary Chinese citizen/netizens, seeing the complete failure of the handling of the pandemic, have been quick to mock the Chinese liberals who are in favor of Trump. In the future if there is opportunity of change in China, the younger generation can ask the liberals that why should we support you who support a destroyer of the US democracy?

J: A pretty good question.

Y: In the future we may face a choice of the CCP on the one hand and on the other hand the degenerated liberalism who supported Trump. For the US, I think it is also important. Part of the effect we have seen this year we have seen the Epoch Times and Apple Daily spreading misinformation. How that began can be found in the larger transformation in the Chinese public discourse. A lot of 自媒体 has internalized the misinformation and join force in report the US election this year and maybe be recruited by 郭文贵 or the Epoch Times. The effect shows. So I think the butterfly effect of the Chinese intellectuals is really huge. We may haven’t seen its full effect at this moment but a few years down the road it will be disastrous.

J: Can you talk about the various explanations you have put forward and why you find them unsatisfying? Let’s start with this, Yao, what is insufficient about the ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’? I can understand that it is satisfying to hear Trump say ‘the CCP is the devil’ when previous administrations would mince their words.

Y: It is one of the hypothesis that I rejected in my paper. I don’t think this tactical explanation is satisfying. If you look into the early endorsements by the Chinese intellectuals since 2015 and 2016, you realize that they were not talking about Trump’s attitude towards China, or the trade war which hadn’t happened yet. They were talking about political correctness, that BLM had gone too far. 孙立平 another sociology professor at Tsinghua University wrote an article comparing Trump with 邓小平 in the late 2017 or early 2018. He says there are two greatest political experiment in human history so far, one is 改革开放 which saved and revived China, the other is Trump’s anit-political correctness war, which will save and revive the US.

K: So you are saying prior to China becoming an issue at all, they were already on board with Trump. Another explanation is the neo-liberalism affinity argument – those who don’t want planned economy finds affinity with neo-liberalism. There is a really important paper by Yiqing Xu and Jennifer Pan that look at how these ideas cluster, how in China and other countries that there is a clustering of certain political values and pro-market values, which is classic neo-liberalism. Why is that not a satisfactory explanation for this pro-Trump phenomenon we are seeing?

—[end of sitting one]—

Y: Yiqing is my friend and I like their work very much, but I disagree with that conclusion. Their questionnaire is designed by random netizens including myself. We put the questions to ordinary citizens, therefore that questionnaire cannot be used in analyzing intellectuals, who might have different understandings and better able to decouple different dimensions. If the conclusion is that Chinese liberals are neo-liberals, I think only some of them have the pro-market attitude from their lived experience, but it cannot be over-generalized. For example 郭于华, 孙立平 are not neo-liberals. 孙 wrote many articles advocating northern Europe model welfare system. Even for those who says we need more privatization, we need to understand how they are neo-liberals. Maybe their support for Trump is the same reason for their becoming neo-liberals.

J: Ian, let me put a question to you. It seems that the neo-liberalism argument might come from a sense that what we are seeing now with these Chinese Trump fans is a lot like what we saw in Poland and Czech Republic and then Slovakia after the cold war, where many of the liberals who enjoyed support of the US turned out to hold some surprising beliefs that did not sit so well with the notion of the golden liberals of Chapel Hill. You also saw this with some of the Russian dissidents. Ian, you were reporting from Berlin at the period. Does that strike you as similar?

I: I think it’s hard for people including us to escape the thinking we are brought up with. I think among the Chinese intellectuals, a lot of the arguments are very ad-hoc, not tested very well. What I’m saying is very unproveable hypothesis but it has a real effect on someone if they’ve never read or have a reliable benchmark information on stuff. I think it’s hard for people who even come up with a coherent argument. If you think of 郭于华, who is a very intelligent person and did some first rate work. But sometimes the lack of reliable facts at their disposal because for them everything is up in the air, open for debate. There is no real hard facts they feel they can rely on, so it leads them down these weird blind alley I find. (K: it sound like you are describing American Trump supporters.) Yes I see a huge similarity, these people don’t read newspapers, and someone tried to advance that, there is no reliable information. If you are in China, what is the reliable newspaper you are going to read? If you are in the US, well you can read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, read a couple of other things to get different points of view. Of course they are all biased, but there is some basic factual basis to them. But in China, what are you going to read? What newspaper is based in reality and decent fact? Everything is swimming in a sea of bullshit. You use intuition to figure things out, you triangulate things against your lived experience. It’s hard for [the Chinese intellectuals] to get real information, and it it leads them to this weird intellectual gymnastics.

K: Yao, your paper says it’s not tactical, it’s not the neo-liberalism affinity, it’s actually this phenomenon of ‘beaconism’. You talk about ‘川化’. You talk about two types of beaconism, the political and the civilizational. What are these and how they work at this metamorphosis?

Y: Political beaconism is the kind of psychological mechanism that grows out of Chinese liberal’s collective lived experience of Maoism and later the collective memory of it. At the time of Reforming and Opening, they had already suffered so much during the Cultural Revolution. They were opening their eyes to the western world. They internalized this black and white contrast between China and the West political regime. They intentionally or unintentionally internalized the rhetorical strategy that sanitize the actual western democracies. The US is the major contrast point. By sanitize I mean they allow small problems in the US democracy as no system is perfect, but they do not admit any major failure on the US part. So when the US self criticize, for example the systematic racism, the Chinese liberal intellectuals recoiled. Such self criticism can be taken advantaged by the CCP. How can they preach democracy to China if the US has systemic problem? Because of their experience, the Cultural Revolution is the most readily available vocabulary for them. When they see BLM tearing down the confederacy monuments, they see the CR ‘破四旧’. Political correctness is of course ‘狠斗私心一闪念’. They reconstruct the US events with their CR vocabulary, which distorted their understanding of the US politics. They are frustrated with the US intellectuals for their owning of the issues. With Xi, the Chinese intellectuals are feeling more and more suffocated. They hoped the western intellectuals would do something. But they are prioritizing self criticism. And they sided with Trump in their criticism of the western intellectuals.

K: What about civilizational beaconism?

Y: When we look at contemporary Chinese political thought, we need to go back to the late Qing Dynasty when China first encountered the western world. The Chinese intellectuals were shocked by how scientifically advanced the western world was. They wanted to learn from the west. They gobbled everything the west offered. Unfortunately it was also the time when colonialism was on the rise in the West. If you look at Chinese intellectual at the time, for example 梁启超 wrote that the white is the best, the black is the worst, the yellow people can be as great as the white people. Over the next century the development of social sciences and humanities in China has been largely stalled. There has not been the reckoning of the racist past. Fast forward to the present, the Chinese intellectuals both liberals and non-liberal nationalists still have colonial racism internalized. They think the European countries shouldn’t take muslim immigrants because that will destroy the western civilization. So MAGA really hits home for them. There is a small distinction among Chinese intellectuals between the liberals and nationalists. The Chinese liberal thinks the west is the best, but hopes that China will rise and join the west and be the best civilizations in the world, and keep the inferiors (blacks and muslims) in check. The non-liberal nationalists fantasize a moment that China could replace the west to take the top of the hierarchy. But they don’t want the west to be brought down by inferior races.

K: You don’t have to look at May Fourth era to find Chinese liberal being racists, look at 1989 He Shang you will still find it. Let’s talk about political correctness. Ian, why is political correctness such a fixation for Chinese intellectuals?

I: I think many people see this as a way to force people to have certain viewpoints that you have to do things a certain way. In China many people are told to think in a certain way. For Chinese intellectuals think this is a fundamental problem. They want to break free of these straight jackets, the correct way of thinking and doing things. For example in the American academia, you have to have a tag in your email to tell people how to refer to you. You are under pressure to do that now. It’s a typical issue when you take your own experience and apply it elsewhere.

J: Before we get into Yao’s piece, let’s talk about 白左. What does it mean? How is it used? Why is the anti-白左 congregated around 知乎? Yao could you give some background on this?

Y: 白左 is literally white lefties, I think first used on 知乎 to describe the social justice activism in the west. Those who cared about the plight of the refugees. I think the term was first popularized in 2015 during the European refugee crisis. 左 is derogatory in the Chinese context, meaning that you care about equality without any consideration of feasibily etc. 白 white has a connotation in Chinese slangs meaning pure but naive 白莲花、傻白甜. Also 白 has a racial connotation that the white people can be naive because they are white, the political agency of black and brown people is eliminated by using this term. Every social justice proposal must come from white people. However naive they are, they are the people who have the ideas and agencies, they can act, they are coming to save the black and brown people. But they save them in the wrong way. They make it worse.

K: 白 in 白左 alternatively means 白痴, a matching term by the conservative is lib-tard.

Y: I think that was later added. Before it was popularized, it means white people. Also 白莲花. If you read 三体, which popularized the image of a woman Cheng Xin, who was designated by earth people as the savior but was so naive and innocent and inadvertently destroyed the earth. The real hero was some male guy. Readers of 三体 quickly invented a term 白莲花 to describe Cheng Xin. It is obviously misogynistic. This attitude against social activism is tied to misogyny in the Chinese discourse.

K: And 白左 is no longer used to describe white people, it is now also used against people in China.

Y: Yes.

I: I wanted to add something. When I hear this criticism, it reminded me also when I was living in Europe, just after the refugee crisis, I went to the US and talked to some Trump voters who said, what a disaster this refugee crisis is, letting these refugees in. I felt it really wasn’t actually a disaster. I sensed something almost like jealousy, that you are able to do something that we are not able to do. There seems to be some parallel here.

J: Shouldn’t we talk about the piece you wrote for 澎湃思想市场? It is translated and published by David [] “Reading the China Dream”. Your piece is about the conversation in Shanghai involving four public intellectuals discussing the BLM movement. Can you give us a sense of how prevalent this is even among people who do not support Trump? [你们 show notes 怎么网站上没有啊,apple podcast 网页上也没有。]

Y: Yes. Among four professors in China who are anti-Trump, who you might call true liberals in China, they have been taking in and using the term political correctness and they have been falling prey to this way of framing public discourse. I think that is one of the defining features of the Chinese internet. People keep talking about those terms and framing discussion with them. Political correctness, cancel culture etc. despite the vast difference between the Chinese and US context. Political correctness is on top of their minds. Whenever there is and argument on the internet, one party is quick to accuse the other to use political correctness to suppress the other side’s opinion.

K: Ian, what explains the eagerness so many Chinese intellectuals use this term? When they see tearing down statues they say ah they are red guards. What strikes me is that so many of their arguments are directly from the US. They are quick to take in Jordan Peterson and American Alt-Right websites. Cultural Revolution experience isn’t sufficient to explain this.

I: Yeah, it’s always interesting what one culture takes from another. When the Chinese look at our culture, they seem to take the least convincing part of it. They don’t take the brightest from the west. Look at Ai Wei Wei, the snarky way of taking down people. Of course it is all around the world. There aren’t peer review journals or magazines where reasonable opinion makers will debate issues. It’s all in social-media-sphere now. So if you can poke someone in the eye, that’s the only way to win argument. It comes across well. It’s a cocktail party debate.

J: We’ve already talked about watching them watching us. Let’s add another layer. Ian, Yao, you must have got quite a lot of response from Chinese or Chinese Americans about your recent work on this topic. What do they say about what you said about what they say about American politics?

I: I can tell you one thing. I interviewed for my piece Li Rei’s daughter Li Nanyang before. She’s a real pro-Trumper. I’m probably the perfect example of 白左 in their eyes. White, 傻瓜 type of guy, which is probably true. 🙂 That is one reaction I got.

K: Li Rei was a long march surviver, who was quite high in the political life in China and became sort of a dissident.

I: He championed the history of China and was one of the patron saints of China through the Ages. His daughter sort of kept the flame alive. She’s living temporarily in the US but she’s a Chinese citizen. She is somewhat representative of the Chinese left thinkers.

J: What about you Yao? Because we can’t blame your whiteness.

Y: I’ve been receiving response of two kinds as you can imagine. One kind is like “thank you so much for explaining this. this has been puzzling me for years, and finally I see a convincing explanation”. The other kind is “you are a piece of shit, you are wumao sent by the CCP to defame the great Trump. When Trump is reelected, you will get deported”.

K: In your piece you said the outcome of this election will determine whether the political beaconism or the civilizational beaconism is stronger. What is your conclusion now that the election result is known?

Y: Now the pro-Trump intellectuals are falling into two camps, they are even fighting each other now. One camp says that let’s accept the lost and uphold and support American democracy. The other camp which I think is much larger still refuses to accept the lost and circulating conspiracy theories. I’m having a lot of fun as I’m in several pro-Trump groups to just observe what they are saying. They come up with a different theory every day.

K: One more question for you before we go back to Ian. You say that younger Chinese will be less persuaded by Trump. But they are more nationalistic. Did you coin that phrase ‘civilization vindictiveness’? [Y: yes] What will the balance be?

Y: I will be cautiously pessimistic. I think within the liberal camp, younger liberals is less receptive to Trump. But the liberal camp is shrinking. Not only because of the disastrous performance of the liberal camp this time, but also because of the larger environment, the indoctrination from very early on in primary schools, and censorship etc.. You can see the rise of wolf warrior generation, who are also tech savvy, and they know how to appropriate the liberal top points and turn them into backing nationalist policies and ideologies. I think in the future we will see less this bizarre liberal supporting Trump phenomenon but a strong illiberal camp firmly against liberalism in China.

K: You are absolutely right about the appropriation. Cui Zhiyuan did that.

J: Ian, a big question for the future, what will dissident intellectuals do now given that their support for Trump will not endear them to the Biden’s team. Do you think they will change with the change of the political administration?

I: I don’t think they will change. Trump may fade in a year or two, but they are too … to change. That poses a question for the Biden administration, who they are going to help? Obviously there are victims of human rights violations in China, the Uighurs etc.. Some of the affinity is no longer there.

K: It’s going to be 滕彪 and 滕彪 and 滕彪. He’s the only one there now. That’s not true. There are still others. Like Yao for example.

K: Thank you both for this conversation.

Yao’s recommendation: book by Chen Yinghong, racism in China (correspond to my civilizational beaconism). Antonin Scalia and American Constitutionalism. How American conservatism used legal rhetorics to advance their partisan goals.

Ian’s recommendation, an article in Vanity Fair about political elite with Clinton, the corruption that explains the rise of Trump. Forbidden Memory, Tibetan during the Cultural Revolution, photos accompanied by long essays.

Lin Yao’s podcast 时差.