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“Baizuo” – China’s Term for “Social Justice Warrior” – is Now in Urban Dictionary

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It’s an interesting age we’re in, where unique cultural phenomena (read: memes) can be produced, packaged, exported, reborn, and revised all in the blink of an eye. New Yorker Staff Writer and widely-heralded China watcher Evan Osnos took to Twitter to point out one instance which he calls “a sign of the times” — the appearance of baizuo on Urban Dictionary.

Baizuo — 白左 literally, “white left” — is an internet term that came into being in the mid-2010s. It’s a derogatory word for liberal elites, specifically those who are educated and whose “obsession with political correctness” serves only to “satisfy their own feelings of moral superiority,” according to an article by political scientist Zhang Chenchen, which brought the term to light in the English-speaking world. It’s effectively the equivalent of the term “Social Justice Warrior.”

The revelation of the phrase’s existence spread quickly in the US because it spoke to the sentiment of about half our population, during a time of peak political dissonance. But that still doesn’t really explain why the term would come to fruition in China in the first place.

Zooming out a bit though, it makes total sense why China would view the US social justice crowd with skepticism. As an individual, I’m a member of this crowd — the issues that I’m most passionate about tend to be social issues, specifically ones that focus on dismantling systemic inequality. But living in China, I can also see why people here would sneer at the “white left” — oftentimes, they’re the same ones who emptily berate China, its people, and policies based on headlines and Western centrism, rather than on context and informed understanding.

The Urban Dictionary entry in question

A baizuo could be someone who mindlessly shares a post about a small town’s dog meat festival, with a snarky caption that condescends toward China as a whole. Or it could be someone who asserts that China’s internet censorship is robbing its poor citizens of their freedom, without also acknowledging that most people here simply don’t care about YouTube and Facebook like you think they do.

China is a complicated topic to unpack, and just like the United States, some of what it does is completely backwards, and some of what it does is genius. The popularity of the term baizuo on the Mainland could be seen as a reaction to the flippancy with which people in the States sometimes put down China: in China they censor your internet, eat dogs, and kids shit on the ground — yeah, but in the US we have domestic terrorists and religious extremists, multiple drug epidemics, people being gunned down constantly in the streets, and a spray-tanned, talentless reality TV host as our president.

To dismiss the way China handles itself as uniformly backwards is simultaneously super Western savior-ist, and indicative of a lack of self/global awareness. Both are classic baizuo traits.

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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