bad china takes: a typology

@BadChinaTake is actually just a vehicle for ethnographic research needed to complete my second PhD. Yes, you did sign the Institutional Review Board waiver.

The following four broad categories are useful for anyone who wishes to navigate the cesspit of public opinion on the English-speaking Internet. While there are of course interdisciplinary individuals whose takes transcend categories, if not the very bounds of reason and logic, nevertheless, the following is sufficient as a primer to acquaint oneself with the varieties of garbage available to any aspiring to become a fabled China Watcher.

If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please keep them to yourself! I am very, very busy knowing things about China!

Mystic China Knowers (MCKs)

Examples: More or less any cultural consultant, Martin Jacques (who is also a tankie, detailed below, and does not even speak Chinese), and really most people besides actual specialists in Eastern philosophy who insert quotes from Confucius into their writing

Most MCKs are not ethnically Chinese, BUT, they often have been to China and/or other places in the exciting Sinosphere, maybe for even up to a few years or more, and speak some Mandarin! Most often, though, theirs is of the mellifluous “waw hway shwah zhawng-win” variety, which they are entirely unaware of because the bar for non-native/heritage speakers (especially white ones) who learn Chinese is not low, it is just fully on the ground. MCKs are big fans of “phrenology for words,” an obnoxious genre of take based on an extremely superficial reading of some random Mandarin phrase, which they think they can divine like tea leaves with their HSK 3 level skills of cross-culture communication. For instance, from a consultant in India:


Screenshot of one such MCK take: "Lastly, ensconced in our agricultural similarities is also the concept of saying goodbye. Both Indian and Chinese cultures don’t have a word to bid adieu. In Mandarin its zài jiàn (再见), while the Indians say phir milenge, both mean I will see you again. It is a Western concept to say goodbye, surmising you might never see the person again.

Language, whether consumed through stories, written characters or ways of doing business, emote the underlying rich fabric of cultural connectedness between India and China."

The notion of “goodbye” was indeed unheard of until brought to the subcontinent by the East India Trading Company and later to Qing China by the Royal Navy during the First Opium War. Everyone was just always, like, together before that.


From the relatively few MCKs whose attention spans and Mandarin reading ability allow them progress from singular words or phrases into the realm of entire books, we get the “I once read this Chinese thing” subtype. Their genesis begins with the subject’s consumption of one, or maybe even a few, venerable Chinese texts. These texts might be a classic (probably read in translation, which is normally fine, unless you’re constructing a Unified Theory of China on it, in which case you need to suck it up and learn Classical Chinese). It might also be something like, I dunno, the Three Body Problem, because that was on sale at Barnes & Noble.

Whatever the text, upon consumption it renders unto the MCK a bounteous insight regarding literally anything you can think of about China and the Chinese; usually, this is also whatever topic is easiest to get placed in an op-ed or decent blog. Through feats of exegesis and interpretation that would put St. Augustine or Maimonides to shame, the MCK extracts meaning that, coincidentally, will also be critical for you to know if you want even the slightest chance of your line of spandex infant lederhosen to take off in Peking this fall. Their fee is $4,998.00 per briefing.

While rarer in the Twitterverse, there are certainly Chinese people whose views fall under the MCK category. One might argue that the Communist Party of China’s continued harping emphasizing 5,000 years of Chinese history puts it in this territory on occasion as well. (Archaeologist Michael Storozum has a good piece on why that claim relies on some pretty… liberal interpretations of what exactly constitutes a reliable historical record here in Radii.)

Death 2 CCP Squad (D2CS)

Examples: Rob Spalding, Chris Balding, Steve Bannon & Miles Kwok, presumably all members of Committee on the Present Danger: China, management and most reporters of the Epoch Times

D2CS is to China as Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz are to Iraq. They are the inverse of a Tankie, in way; China cannot do anything that is not a pernicious threat to the civilized world, freedom, love, beauty, and truth. The D2CS cheapen legitimate, pressing concerns about China on security, economic, and human rights fronts by instantly transforming any discussion thereof into a Manichaean battle of the Utterly Good United States et al. versus the People’s Republic of Evil and its ilk. Particularly noxious because of the influence many of them have in the US government at present (or had, before getting kicked out, in the cases of Spalding and Bannon.)

I’ll tell climate change.

D2CS types are predominantly, but not exclusively, right-wing. Their backgrounds are diverse—some (like Miles Kwok a.k.a. Guo Wengui) were burned by Beijing and flipped their relatively mundane anger at losing everything they had in some power struggle into a self-righteous crusade; others (like Spalding) were spurned by some part of The Beltway establishment for being nincompoops and are convinced there is a conspiracy against all good patriots; and some are justifiably aggrieved Hong Kongers who have placed their hopes on the American right to deliver them, which, in all seriousness, really sucks to see. Then there’s the Epoch Times. Remember when their editorial board suggested people afflicted with COVID-19 should consider denouncing Chinese Communist Ideology as a potential cure? Great crowd over there. Quality stuff.

The relatively small left-wing D2CS contingent seems to be primarily composed of Extremely Online pro-Taiwan independence advocates, the kind who make Tsai Ing-wen look like Chiang Ching-kuo. It’s not clear to me how many are even Taiwanese. Their wrath also stems from kernels of concern about the security and wellbeing of the place they genuinely have come to love, but frankly, it just gets cringey, and they seem to lack an understanding that their rhetoric is frequently appropriated by the right to advocate for hawkish policy that if anything may put more Taiwanese people in danger.

Tankies

Examples: Employees of Grayzone (especially editor Ben Norton), the Qiao Beehive Collective, and upwards of 90% of people with ☭ in their Twitter display name)

A classic type whose name is derived from the Soviet tanks that rolled through either Czechoslovakia in 1968, Hungary in 1956, or even the tanks at Tiananmen Square in 1989, depending on who you ask. The Tankie is an unapologetic Western apologist for authoritarian violence and repression regularly deployed by the CCP against dissidents and activists it deems a threat to Party rule. The tankie will probably tell you those dissident and activists were counterrevolutionaries anyway. Many appear to be literal teenagers, which is telling.

Through extremely ahistorical and elementary readings of a smorgasbord of left-wing texts, or at least the screenshots of said texts they see on Twitter, Tankies collate around an “Identity Politics for Stalinists,” a ludicrous worldview the functionally renders the very idea of imperial colonialism exclusively to the domain of white-majority countries (except the USSR, of course, which was not imperialist, and Hong Kong democracy protestors, who are, because one of the waved a Union Jack that one time) and by extension does not countenance the idea that China could ever engage in similar offenses. Interestingly, there are degrees of Tankie-ism, or in other words, there are some Tankies that are too Tankie even for other Tankies:

SeraJade’s main thing is promoting the DPRK as a cool, fun, anti-colonialist place to be. Kim Jong-un is just misunderstood. It’s all very charming.

Politically, they are much less powerful on the whole than the most prominent D2CS type, probably because they are too obnoxious to be around in real life, making organizing grassroots actions hard. Yet they are subtly pernicious in that their presence is extremely corrosive for the left writ large; if I’m a Ukrainian-American at my first New York DSA meeting, I’m going to get pretty pissed when someone gets up and tells me my babusya’s death was actually faked for CIA agitprop or whatever. Ditto re: any Hong Konger who might otherwise organize on the left (speaking of which, shout out to Lausan , which everyone should read).

Indeed, the tell-tale sign of Tankie-ism is the belief that the CIA/other Western intelligence agencies are several orders of magnitude more effective, discreet, and competent than they actually are, which is probably pretty embarrassing for the CIA. Another tell-tale sign is just views of history that sound like they come from a weird fairytale:

CCP Bootlickers

Examples: Carl Zha, Shaun Rein, Tom Fowdy, that one fratbro you studied abroad in Shanghai with for a semester and who really hit it off with the nephew of the Deputy Chair of the District Party Committee when you all went out clubbing once and then decided he was never going back to Arkansas, ever, because this place is great

Unlike Tankies, the Bootlicker is not convincingly Marxist, although they may nominally claim to be for the sake of convenience. They prefer to expound upon the superiority of the People’s Republic in more platitudinous terms, like pictures of ethnic minorities dancing happily. They generally have direct experience living and working in China, or are from there themselves, which helps explain why they are not real Marxists, because if they were, they might get steamrolled by the CCP. In reality, the bootlickers just subscribe the what may be termed “Socialism with Suck-up Characteristics.”

The Bootlicker can be driven by any combination of motives, such as financial interest in China, nationalism, and/or contrarianism. For Shaun Rein, for instance, it appears to be a combination of all three. There’s also the fact that his mother-in-law is the daughter Marshal Ye Jianying, who was a member of the CCP Politburo in the 1970s and 80s.

A Bootlicker shares much with Tankies, but will probably tend to blame Western Media preferentially over the CIA. The Bootlickers also often have weird, reductionist views about “Chinese Culture” and “Western Culture” that often just sound… inadvertently orientalist, frankly. In this way, they often veer into Mystic China Knower territory by virtue of the special knowledge they have of China, as discussed previously. Many of them also will try to sell this special knowledge to you through their bullshit consultancy, another point of congruence with the MCKs. Overall, they’re just exceedingly annoying.


3 thoughts on “bad china takes: a typology

  1. I’m curious how you would categorize a Chinese humanities scholar who, when author Mo Yan got the Nobel Prize for literature, defended is eligibility for this against attacks from the academic equivalents of what I think you would call D2CS, who claim that Chinese people can’t write real literature because their minds have been infected irreversibly by brainwashing, and especially those like Mo Yan who have official positions in the Chinese Writers Association and perform associated duties are only capable of being mouthpieces of the CCP and apologists for all the bad things it does. The defender (me) countered with the claim that literature has made significant strides since the 1980s and Mo Yan represents the earliest generation of this new era, which made a name for itself precisely by criticizing the ugly side of PRC history and negative aspects of socialism. I have trouble seeing myself in your taxonomy. This is old news but it’s an ongoing gulf within academia.

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    1. if that’s indeed an argument made anywhere in the Academy about Chinese literature, I would just call them orientalist/racist assholes. You would seem to fall into “reasonable person,” a category not detailed above. I have only read 蛙 by Mo Yan, and that book is obviously not just some paean to the CCP. (If anything, there’s an art in being able to show the flaws of the country and its history without triggering total censorship, frankly.) The extensive and frankly just boring restrictions the government places on creative works are real, and frustrating, but to argue that *nothing* written in China merits artistic consideration is obscene.

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