“Baizuo” – Chinese netizens ridicule the ‘White Left’

The political theorist, Chenchen Zhang, has recently written an interesting article about Chinese netizens and their ridicule of the ‘White Left’:

If you look at any thread about Trump, Islam or immigration on a Chinese social media platform these days, it’s impossible to avoid encountering the term baizuo (白左), or literally, the ‘white left’.

So what does ‘white left’ mean in the Chinese context, and what’s behind the rise of its (negative) popularity?

A thread on “why well-educated elites in the west are seen as naïve “white left” in China” on Zhihu, a question-and-answer website said to have a high percentage of active users who are professionals and intellectuals, might serve as a starting point.

The question has received more than 400 answers from Zhihu users, which include some of the most representative perceptions of the ‘white left’. Although the emphasis varies, baizuo is used generally to describe those who “only care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment” and “have no sense of real problems in the real world”; they are hypocritical humanitarians who advocate for peace and equality only to “satisfy their own feeling of moral superiority”; they are “obsessed with political correctness” to the extent that they “tolerate backwards Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalism”; they believe in the welfare state that “benefits only the idle and the free riders”; they are the “ignorant and arrogant westerners” who “pity the rest of the world and think they are saviours”.

The curious rise of the ‘white left’ as a Chinese internet insult


Citizens of affluent countries are not responsible for their social institutions’ violations of human rights – a critique of Thomas Pogge

Thomas Pogge

Thomas Pogge

The German philosopher, Thomas Pogge (2007) who wrote his PhD dissertation under the supervision of John Rawls and has since made a name for himself, claims that severe poverty is largely avoidable today if the more affluent, given the wealth that they have accumulated, would actively attempt to improve the lives of the poor. Pogge maintains that one important means to reduce poverty significantly is by restructuring national and global legal systems so that they become more consistent with Article 25 and Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 states that every person has the right to a minimum standard of living that is “adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” This right aims to ensure that everyone is at least alleviated from severe poverty. Article 28 states that all persons are entitled to a “social and international order” in which all human rights as articulated in the UDHR, including the right of minimum sustenance, can become realized.

Pogge argues that the national responsibility to alleviate severe poverty should become an international responsibility. According to Pogge, this responsibility lies predominantly in the collective hands of citizens of affluent countries, because they have been contributors to the inequality and poverty in poorer countries by maintaining the unfair international economic system. Pogge believes that these citizens should be held responsible as they contribute to the unfair economic order in the form of voting, paying taxes, and participating in economic transactions. He puts forward the following deductive argumentation as a justification of attributing responsibility to citizens:

  1. Human rights are universal and should be upheld by any society;
  2. Citizens are responsible for their society’s organization;
  3. Human rights demand citizens to accept and protect human rights;
  4. Since citizens are responsible for their society’s organization, they are responsible for human rights violations that occur due to the society’s institutions;
  5. In the case citizens fail to reorganize their society, citizens become human rights violators.

Assuming that Pogge’s assertion that the economic order we live in is unfair is correct, I would like to critique Pogge’s view that citizens of affluent countries are responsible for their social institutions’ violations of human rights in three separate arguments. I will first resort to public choice theory to maintain that our representatives are acting in self-interests and do not act in the interests of the collective citizenry. They can therefore not truly represent the people. In addition, I will maintain that citizens who do take part of the democratic process are mostly rationally ignorant voters who do not have a direct say in political decisions. Lastly, I will maintain that by merely paying taxes and participating in the economic order does not make one tacitly consent to social institutions.

1. Political representatives are like everyone else subject to self-interests and cannot represent everyone equally
The problem with extending responsibility from social institutions to the collective citizenry, is that it is fundamentally grounded on the belief that a collective can have motivations or wills. Public choice theory maintains that politics is not a process by which political agents can elevate themselves above their self-interests. In addition, politics is ruled by clashing opinions of policy makers, which makes it difficult to pursue the ‘public interest’. One may want to use public funds for building new roads, another may want to spend more on defense, a third on social welfare, a fourth on education, which makes it impossible to generate a sensible policy that represents the interests of the general public. It is moreover well-known that people with similar special interests regularly organize themselves politically in order to influence legislation. Such minority groups have strong incentives to do so, because favourable legislation can lead to great gains that are distributed among participants of the small group. Lobby groups of solar panel producers in the European Union have for example successfully persuaded legislators to use more tax money for solar energy subsidies, and in 2013 they have succeeded in persuading legislators to enact import restrictions on cheaper Chinese produced solar panels. European solar panel producers have of course benefited greatly from this legislation at the cost of tax payers who have financed the subsidies and who are saddled with higher prices for the panels. Large groups like taxpayers do have little incentive to spend their labour campaigning for particular legislations, because the impact and benefit of a decision is spread more widely among each individual taxpayer. In other words, the taxpayer finds that the cost of labour and effort in seeking influence on legislation is higher than its benefit.

I believe that conflicts of interests and differences in incentives among citizens cannot result in equal representation. If our representatives cannot act in the interests of all citizens – they represent some citizens more than others – they are not truly the representatives of the collective citizenry. Imagine for example that there is a piece of legislation that our representatives can either pass or not with 35 per cent of the public in favour of the legislation and 65 per cent who oppose it. If our representatives pass the legislation, they will represent the 35 per cent and ignore the interests of the 65 per cent. If they do not pass the legislation, they will represent the 65 per cent and cease to represent the interests of the 35 per cent. It is impossible to represent a constituency.

2. Citizens may choose to be rationally ignorant voters and have no direct say in political decisions
Pogge has furthermore claimed that by taking part in the democratic process, citizens become responsible for the actions of those they elect to power. However, I would like to argue that most citizens choose to be rationally ignorant voters and therefore they cannot be truly held responsible. A principle can be rationally ignorant if he or she realizes that spending much time and effort to become well informed of politics are not worth the minuscule chance that his or her vote will have an effect on the election. I believe that it is unjustified to attribute responsibility to the voter in a representative democracy, because the incentive of the voter to rationally and considerately engage in the election is significantly lower than the cost of informing oneself. A political system like democracy encourages voter ignorance concerning public policies, and actually produces citizens who do not employ their reason to the extent that they can be held responsible for the results of their voting. Another consequence of the voters’ high-costs/low-benefits is that the turnover rate of elections is often far below 100 per cent. Can we attribute to those, who have not voted, responsibility for the social institutions’ violations of human rights? Following Pogge’s claim that voting automatically makes one responsible for the state’s representatives’ actions, we can assert that those who abstain from voting cannot be attributed responsibility. Hence, the state cannot represent the whole collective citizenry by voting alone.

If it is impossible for political agents to represent the interests of all principals and if voting alone does not authorize political agents to act in the name of all citizens, can tacit consent then maybe extend the responsibility of political agents to include the whole collective citizenry? One possible objection is that even those who do not vote are still contributing to the economic order by participating in the economy and by paying taxes which supports social institutions. One can argue that people are therefore tacitly consenting to the social order. However, I will argue that the tacit consent theory does not suffice.

3. Objecting to the tacit consent argument
Pogge claims that participants in market transactions are not only affecting the seller, but indirectly also the employer, the producer, the shareholders, the employees etc. We are hence also affecting employment opportunities in poor countries, and we are therefore affecting families by mere participation in the economic order. Changes in our fashions may thus save lives or kill hundreds of people in poor countries. Can we however claim that citizens are responsible for the economic order through tacit consent when they merely participate in the order? According to libertarians, all consent must be derived voluntarily. The problem of tacit consent is that citizens have never explicitly signed a social contract with the agencies of the social order or with the order as such. We are simply born into a system that works in a particular manner. It is not to say that one cannot attach a moral claim to the operations of the order. Many people, if they could, would like to improve the order. However, one may not underestimate the extent to which the economic order operates. As the economic order is so extensive in scope, it is almost impossible for citizens in the affluent countries to retreat themselves from the order without being significantly affected in their personal living standards. Withdrawal from the international economic order would mean that one should only consume local products and services. Even a product, as simple as a pencil as is evidently clear in Leonard Read’s I, Pencil (1958), cannot be produced and consumed on local division of labour alone. If basic consumer products are difficult to get by, it is reasonable why people would not withdraw: the cost of retreating from the system is so great that we simply submit ourselves into participation in the unfair economic order. Likewise, the alternative of paying taxes is being fined and being imprisoned. Taxes, being compulsory, do not make it possible for any citizen to rightfully claim that they voluntarily support the social institutions. Mere participation in a society does not necessarily make us also endorsers of the society if we do not have any other sensible option. The absence of this third choice has actually moved citizens into “tacit submission”.

Pogge, T. (2005). Recognized and Violated by International Law: The Human Rights of the Global Poor. Leiden Journal of International Law, 18, pp. 717-745

Pogge, T. (2007). Severe Poverty as a Human Rights Violation. In T. Pogge (Ed.), Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right, (pp. 11-53)

Read, L.E. (1958). I, Pencil. New York: The Foundation for Economic Education

UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948

Are we all Slaves? (excerpt from Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia)

The Tale of the Slave

This is an excerpt from Robert Nozick‘s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, (1974, 290-292). I love the thought-provoking question he is raising in this little story.

“Consider the following sequence of cases… and imagine it is about you.

  1. There is a slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master’s whims. He often is cruelly beaten, called out in the middle of the night, and so on.
  2. The master is kindlier and beats the slave only for stated infractions of his rules (not fulfilling the work quota, and so on). He gives the slave some free time.
  3. The master has a group of slaves, and he decides how things are to be allocated among them on nice grounds, taking into account their needs, merit, and so on.
  4. The master allows his slaves four days on their own and requires them to work only three days a week on his land. The rest of the time is their own.
  5. The master allows his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three-sevenths of their wages. He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land; and to raise or lower the three-sevenths amount required to be turned over to him. He further retains the right to restrict the slaves from participating in certain dangerous activities that threaten his financial return, for example, mountain climbing, cigarette smoking.
  6. The master allows all of his 10,000 slaves, except you, to vote, and the joint decision is made by all of them. There is open discussion, and so forth, among them, and they have the power to determine to what uses to put whatever percentage of your (and their) earnings they decide to take; what activities legitimately may be forbidden to you, and so on.
  7. Though still not having the vote, you are at liberty (and are given the right) to enter into the discussions of the 10,000, to try to persuade them to adopt various policies and to treat you and themselves in a certain way. They then go off to vote to decide upon policies covering the vast range of their powers.
  8. In appreciation of your useful contributions to discussion, the 10,000 allow you to vote if they are deadlocked; they commit themselves to this procedure. After the discussion you mark your vote on a slip of paper, and they go off and vote. In the eventuality that they divide evenly on some issue, 5,000 for and 5,000 against, they look at your ballot and count it in. This has never yet happened; they have never yet had occasion to open your ballot. (A single master also might commit himself to letting his slave decide any issue concerning him about which he, the master, was absolutely indifferent.)
  9. They throw your vote in with theirs. If they are exactly tied your vote carries the issue. Otherwise it makes no difference to the electoral outcome.

The question is: which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?”