Srdjan Vucetic, University of Ottawa, Canada
“Five Eyes Today’s Axis of White Supremacy” – so went the title of a much-trafficked Global Times editorial of February 23, 2021. Responding to a motion in Canada’s House of Commons accusing Beijing of committing genocide against Uygurs, the newspaper decided to lambast what it said was a “mafia-styled” bloc of five white-majority countries bent on global hegemony: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. “By resisting them, China is not only defending its own interests, we are also defending the diversity of the modern world,” the piece concluded.
On one level, this was just another day at work at Beijing’s angry English language tabloid. Hu Xijin, its editor-in-chief, specializes in trolling Western audiences, especially on Twitter, a social networking website banned in the People’s Republic. He therefore must have been pleased with the result. A torrent of social media posts and headlines reacted to the editorial, mixing indignation and derision with careful analyses of the mechanics of Chinese whataboutism. Most reactions veered towards the political right. Entitled “The Woke Chinese Community Party,” the Wall Street Journal editorial argued that Beijing was trying to sow racial discord by manipulating “the progressive critique of America as a country that is “systemically” racist and oppressive.” This, it continued, was not a repeat of the early Cold War simply because today’s “woke ideology” of America’s liberal elite is at once more extreme and more pervasive than anything that came before; “The Global Times editors may be crude, but they’ve obviously been reading the New York Times.”
Together, the two editorials index two hegemonic contestations that define our world. One is a geopolitical feud between China and the US-led West, which some like to call the new Cold War. The other is a struggle for political and ideological supremacy within and across the Western world. Exhibiting elements of what Gramsci and neo-Gramscians refer to as a “war of position” – a protracted, and often subtle tussle for cultural clout – these contestations are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. As such, they are also generative of some unlikely discourse coalitions. A case in point that between the Communist Part of China and the Trumpist wing of America’s Republican Party on issues of culture and civilization.
White Supremacy According to Beijing
Chinese interest in liberal hypocrisies on empire and racism predates the People Republic. Sun Yat-sen, the putative father of modern China – who remains equally revered on both sides of the Taiwan Straits –, lectured about “the white man’s imperialistic behaviour” and the need of “the wronged races” to come together to “fight for mankind against injustice.” Decades later, Mao’s foreign minister Zhou Enlai would articulate the same message, first at Bandung in 1955, then across Africa in the 1960s.
Contemporary “wolf warriors” in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs have revived aspects of this tradition.[i] The first white supremacy accusation came from China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, who in January 2019 wrote an op-ed in an Ottawa newspaper asserting that Western “double standards” on the rule of law were a function of “Western egotism and white supremacy.” This was meant a riposte to Canadian protests over China’s “hostage diplomacy,” that is, the “arrest” of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in retaliation for Canada’s detention of an executive of the telecoms giant Huawei, Meng Wanzhou (who was wanted in the US on fraud charges). Mr. Lu planned his media intervention in the spirit of the Global Times. Having spun the entire Canadian media space into a frenzy for a week, the ambassador called a press conference in which he suggested that in Canada’s white supremacism is merely hiding beneath the veneer of liberalism.[ii]
In this usage, “white supremacy” functions not as a referent to a real problem of liberal modernity, but as a rhetorical commonplace in a hearts-and-minds struggle against the so-called liberal international order. Said order, according to Beijing, is simply a ploy: it flattens particular forms of cultural diversity as a way of legitimizing the continued hegemony of the West over the Rest. This helps explain why in the Chinese state discourse cultures and civilizations are configured as distinct, discrete, and durable, as opposed to open, hybrid, multilayered, internally contested, contingent, continuous, imagined, or imaginary.
Is this discourse winning hearts and minds? The simple answer is no. The People’s Republic failed to cast the Cold War as racial war, and is now failing to build a counter-hegemonic coalition on any issue, let alone one championing cultural diversity. Covid-19 adds to the challenge, with public opinion on China plummeting everywhere, including in places where anti-Western ideologies run deep.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results, however. Many Gramscians would say that (geo)politics is undergoing a huge transformation: “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Gramsci’s description of the 1920s is much hackneyed, but the analytical perspective behind it makes us more sensitive to other game-changing developments, actual or potential. Among them is an emerging coalition between Chinese civilizationalism on one hand, and these discourses of radical conservative political movements on the other.
What White Supremacy?
Whether a “close call” for US democracy or a dramatic expression of its fundamental deficiencies, January 6, 2021 stands as a significant marker of the current interregnum. Egged on by a sitting Republican president, Donald Trump, violent insurgents invaded the Capitol building in an attempt to stop what he alleged was an illegal election of his successor, the Democrat, Joe Biden. The majority of Republican leaders and public still support Trump, however. To them, he had every right to cleanse Washington of traitors. Yet, in addition to showing the middle finger to the legislative committee investigating the riot and the federal prosecutors prosecuting the rioters, Republicans have also doubled down on Trumpist policies.
An extreme example is the bizarre America First Caucus that a group of pro-Trump representatives tried to create in the US Congress earlier this year. “America,” its platform of declared, “is a nation with a border, and a culture, strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” But see as well the recent developments at the state level, where countless new pieces of legislation are being mobilized towards restricting and suppressing voting rights, stifling law enforcement reforms, muffling expression, and curbing what GOP officials and supporters contend are the excesses of liberalism.
A key thread running through all of these moves is a desire to thwart “woke ideology,” “critical race theory,” and “cultural Marxism,” which is how Republicans label policy ideas and campaigns motivated by the latest iteration of racial liberalism. We have long seen this in right-wing media attacks on anti-bias training in government and corporations. Now we see it in the systematic attack on K-12 and higher education institutions, with Republican officials in states from Alabama to Wisconsin taking serious steps to banish the very term white supremacy – that is, to restrict teachers from discussing the legacy of racist structures and ideas.
A specifically American academic label for this type of politics is “culture wars.” Popularized thirty years ago in the eponymous book written by the sociologist James Davison Hunter, the term refers not simply to a political struggle over cultural issues, but more importantly a Gramscian awareness of the role cultural institutions play in politics. (Calling them powerful, Hunter’s book duly engaged with Gramsci’s analytical tools.). Today, as Hunter recently explained for Politico, culture is more explicitly focused on race. Against the backdrop of America’s enduring political polarization, this is unsurprising. Republican voters, most of whom are white, welcome attacks on anti-racist campaigns because they are wedded to a version of reality in which America’s wealth is a function of “hard work” and “freedom,” as opposed to theft of Indigenous lands and labour of enslaved Africans. Yet some attacks also come from parts of the American left, who, alienated with what they say are excesses of “identity politics,” feel the need to torpedo “white supremacy” as a term of discussion.
For Hunter, the Great Recession has intensified culture wars across the world. (The main reason the US stand out, he pointed out, has to do with America’s well-funded special-interest groups.) In his analysis, culture wars map out “a kind of class-culture conflict,” which is a good Gramscian phrase to describe the clash “between the middle and lower-middle or working class and the highly trained, professionally educated managers, technocrats and intellectuals—basically, between the top 20 percent and the bottom 80 percent.”
We can push Hunter’s analysis further. Having recognized the potential reach of social media and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter early on, radical conservative political movements – popularly called “populists”, but technically akin to a “new” New Right – have become skilled in exploiting anxieties and resentments of both the 20 percent and the bottom 80 percent. Their success has many parents, and one of them, surprisingly, is Gramsci – or rather a particular appropriation of the Italian Marxist philosopher by members of the French Nouvelle Droite in the 1960s. Recast as “metapolitics,” this body of though has circulated in all four corners of the world since, instructing conservatives to wage a war of position as a way of wrestling control of the state from “the liberal-left.” This helps explain why the slogans contemporary “populists” use tend to be the same across very different countries: “they” bring crime and disease, take jobs, and breed; “we” restore law and order, protect our borders, and put us first.[iii] Combine crises of capitalism, routinely recast as “catastrophe” and “collapse,” with brave new technologies and Gramscian revolutionary ideas and what you get is an ever more intensifying struggle between rival ideological positions.
Between these two hegemonic contestations, the one involving Washington and Beijing receives far more media attention. Responding to the Global Times white supremacy editorial, The Financial Times urged US officials to accept that racial liberalism is a valuable foreign policy strategy, too. In the words of one of its columnists: “If the United States were truly recognized as the world champion of racial equality, it might benefit from an international battle of heart and soul with China. The long-term goal is to contrast the multicultural United States with the ethnocentric China.”
Given what we know about the politics of recognition, this is a big if. However, as Andrew Szarejko has noted, the optimal liberal response to China’s whataboutit rhetoric is to combine truth acknowledgment with actual evidence of anti-racist progress. His example is the genocide of the Native American peoples: admit the wrongdoing, yes, but also engage in large-scale political transformation, meaning everything from better political representation for tribal governments to reparations and retributive justice to apologies and forgiveness.
Canadian and American diplomats say they get this. “Where are the commissions of truth and reconciliation in China?,” thundered Canada’s United Nations Ambassador Bob Rae in one General Assembly joust last year. This year, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield went a step further in a UN committee when she stated that white supremacy is “weaved” into the world, America’s founding documents included: “We have flaws. Deep, serious flaws. But we talk about them. We work to address them.”
Good liberals accept that liberalism has been generative of an “across-the-board pattern of unjust systemic white advantage,” as philosopher Charles W. Mills puts it. But as they work to address the realities of racial exclusion at home and abroad, liberals would do well to keep an eye on ongoing ideological contestations within, across, and between nations. Understanding how the rhetoric of white supremacy serves diverse agendas is the first step towards gaining a better understanding of the conditions under which these contestations feed off each other and to whose net benefit.
10 Further Readings
Abrahamsen, Jean-François Drolet, Alexandra Gheciu, Karin Narita, Srdjan Vucetic and Michael Williams, “Confronting the International Political Sociology of the New Right,” International Political Sociology 14: 1 (2020), 94–107.
Adler-Nissen, Rebecca, and Ayşe Zarakol. 2021. “Struggles for recognition: The Liberal international order and the merger of its discontents.” International Organization 75 (2):611-634.
Allan, Bentley B., Srdjan Vucetic, and Ted Hopf. 2018. “The Distribution of Identity and the Future of International Order: China’s Hegemonic Prospects.” International Organization 72 (4):839-869.
Bettiza, Gregorio, and David Lewis. 2020. “Authoritarian powers and norm contestation in the liberal international order: Theorizing the Power Politics of Ideas and Identity.” Journal of Global Security Studies 5 (4):559-577.
Cooley, Alexander, and Daniel Nexon. 2020. Exit from Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hurrell, Andrew. 2020. “Cultural Diversity within Global International Society.” In Culture and order in world politics, edited by Andrew Phillips and Christian Reus-Smit, 115-136. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hunter, James Davison. 1991. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: BasicBooks.
Reus-Smit, Christian. 2018. On Cultural Diversity: International Theory in a World of Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vucetic, Srdjan. 2021. “Race, Liberalism, and Global Justice: Interdisciplinary Interview with Charles W. Mills,” International Politics Reviews, 1-16.
Zhang, Chenchen. 2020. “Right-wing populism with Chinese characteristics? Identity, otherness and global imaginaries in debating world politics online,” European journal of international relations 26 (1), 88-115.
[i] What appears to be missing this time is anti-colonial thought itself. And to be clear, the moniker wolf warrior diplomacy comes from China itself, specifically from the eponymous Chinese action film series in which a Chinese super solider fights and defeats assorted Western miscreants.
[ii] The conference invited Chinese journalists, too, and the ambassador spoke in Chinese, English and French. The English language version of his remarks was subsequently made available on the ministry website: “I understand that the Canadian government and the Canadian society resolutely oppose “white supremacy”. But this kind of opposition does not mean that it does not exist in Canada. Some people do have deep-rooted views or values of “white supremacy”. When the external environment or condition changes, these views or values will be revealed.” And whatever he said, or meant to say, the party in Beijing was pleased. Soon enough, Mr. Lu was promoted. As China’s ambassador in Paris, he now trolls the French.
[iii] By no means is the besieged “we” always white. As Chenchen Zhang has demonstrated, “Western-style” right-wing talking points are ubiquitous even in China’s middle class cyberspace, let alone in more institutionalized right-wing spaces across the “Rest.”
Srdjan Vucetic is Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and Research Co-coordinator at the Center for International Policy Studies, both at the University of Ottawa, Canada. https://srdjanvucetic.wordpress.com/bio/#jp-carousel-751