Global culture wars?

Matthew McKeever
13 min readMay 6


For the past couple of months I’ve been reading the news in Chinese. Through some design choice of my learning app, most of the stories I’m given are about foreign events, and so each day is a trip through fires, strikes, shootings, and financial problems in Europe and North and South America.

But one thing stands out. Among the stories, there are occasionally pieces that move from reporting to analysis. In addition to stories about shootings or overdoses, there’ll be opinion-style stories about the nature of the gun and drug problem in the US, backed by data, contextualized with relevant history, and offering an evaluation, as opposed merely to description, of the problem.

And the big thing is: I find these unbelievably convincing analyses of the problems of the US. They lay out the problems basically exactly as I would, or, perhaps better, as a smart US liberal would. It’s really the sort of thing one would expect in the introduction to, say, a Verso or a Princeton university press book, or perhaps in a wonky report from a politician.

And that’s unusual. To see why, consider the rhetoric of another country fighting with the US, Russia. In a series of important war speeches, as was widely noted at the time, Putin bizarrely took over Fox talking points about ‘gender freedom’, portraying the West as a place of ‘satanic’ moral degeneracy aiming to abolish the family and corrupt the youth. And his foot soldiers — people like Vladimir Soloyvov, Margarita Simonyan, Maria Zakharova — they do the same, in less visible venues, solely for Russian audiences.

It’s tempting to propose the following diagnosis: China’s foreign policy rhetoric, in places, takes over views and styles from American liberals, while Russia’s takes over styles and views from American conservatives.

I realize it sounds weird and a bit silly to transplant the liberal/conservative distinction from familiar Western context to other cultures. Hopefully the below will convince you it’s not such a bad move, but I hereby apologize for the odd-soundingness of claims like this, which will be repeated a bunch. If it helps, when I say things like ‘China’s foreign policy is liberal’ I really mean something like ‘Many of China’s foreign policy articles are ones one could imagine a Western liberal writing or endorsing’.

Why would Putin’s Russia and the contemporary GOP ideologically overlap? Historians of conservativism like Rick Perlstein can tell a story going back to Nixon or so and the silent majority, one that will take in religion, Reaganomics, and the effects of first talk radio then Fox then the outer reaches of the internet leading, via long-standing economic trends, to Trump. It’s much harder to tell an origin story of how Russian thought developed from actually existing socialism to the 90s to Putin that will can satisfactorily explain how it is that, say, Margarita Simonyan and Tucker Carlson sing from the same hymnsheet. It’s a coincidence that cries out for explanation.

Ditto with China. It surely requires explanation why there’s a convergence between what I think, or what anti-gun violence or drug-law-reform PACs agitate for, and what I read in Chinese newspapers.

I’ll try to provide such an explanation here, and show why it’s something worth being interested in. First, I’ll make the case empirically that the above sketch is at least roughly on the right lines. Then I’ll try to present a theory.

One note before going on. I throughout concentrate, per my title, on culture wars. What does that mean? Well, I don’t know — I certainly don’t have a definition of what a culture war is. But hopefully I, and you, can recognize them when we see them.

Guns, Drugs, and Gender theory

Take a look at this page, from the China Ministry of Foreign Affairs: gun violence, drugs, income inequality, the mistreatment of native Americans …these are all standard themes of American liberals and/or leftists. Moreover, if you read the articles, they are good. They make their case convincingly. Opening up the one on the economy, we read

The share of national income held by upper-income households has risen markedly. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the income shares of the top fifth and top 5 percent have both been climbing. Standing at 43.3 percent and 16.6 percent respectively in 1970, their shares rose to 52.2 percent and 23.0 percent in 2020. In the meantime, the shares held by middle- and low-income households have both declined. The share of the middle-income group dropped from 52.7 percent in 1970 to 44.7 percent in 2020, and that of the low-income group in the bottom fifth fell from 4.1 percent to 3 percent. Since 1993, the income share of middle-income families, who make up 60 percent of total households, has remained lower than that of the top fifth, and is becoming increasingly disproportionate.

◆ The income share of the ultra-rich has reached its highest level since World War II. According to the World Wealth and Income Database, after an initial fall in the early 20th century, the income share of the ultra-rich, or the top 1 percent, in the United States had kept rising, and hit 22.3 percent in 1928. After World War II, a prevailing call for equal opportunity and economic equality, along with the introduction of economic systems such as progressive tax, inheritance tax, strong trade unions and financial regulation, helped restrain the concentration of wealth. By 1970, the income share of the top 1 percent had fallen to 10.7 percent. But it has since risen gradually, and reached 19.1 percent by 2021, almost doubled in 50 years.

This is, it seems to me, exactly, down to tone, the sort of thing one would read in a book published by a press you — or at least I— would happily read. Or the guns one:

Due to the difficulty of Congress to act on gun control, the U.S. administration could only regulate certain types of firearms and firearm modifications through presidential executive orders. In June 2022, Congress passed a gun-related bill called the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. According to a Pew poll, most people are not optimistic about the bill’s effect in reducing gun violence in the United States. Seventy-eight percent think it will do little, of which 36 percent think it will do nothing at all.

◆The American public is deeply divided on gun control. Public opinion polls in recent years have shown that women, urban residents, non-native borns, liberal-leaning people and non-gun owners are more likely to support gun control, while men, rural residents, native-born Americans, political conservatives, hunters and gun owners oppose it. The gap between Americans’ stance on gun control is still widening.

Or the drugs one:

Interest groups in America keep fanning the flame of the drug problem. In order to maintain their profits, large pharmaceutical enterprises in the United States throw a large amount of money into sponsoring experts and associations to peddle the narrative that “opioids are harmless.” What they want is to push for drug legalization and prod pharmacies into promoting drug sales and doctors into indiscriminate prescription of drugs. As a result, some patients have unknowingly developed drug addiction that they could not get rid of.

It’s important to note that these reports make more dubious claims; not everything rings true. For example, the democracy article says this about Seymour Hersh’s report on NordStream

As observed by Canadian website Western Standard and German television channel ZDF, Hersh’s report was one of the biggest stories of the decade, but few media in North America wanted to talk about it because the West does not want anyone to find out about the truth and the surveillance technologies it has deployed in the Baltic Sea. Western media even try to bypass the crux of the issue by questioning the authenticity of Hersh’s report.

The gun violence article has near the start

The “Black Lives Matter (BLM)” movement sparked a series of looting and riots, aggravating social insecurity.

So, although not perfect, I think that’s definitely some evidence in defence of my (odd-sounding) claim that Chinese foreign policy media veers liberal, where again by that I mean presents stories like one would find in liberal venues in the West. Against this, one might object that these documents are English and for an English audience, and so do not reflect China-internal rhetoric.

But I think we can show this to be false. We can note that the Chinese version of the document is called 美国枪支暴力泛滥的事实真相, ~‘the truth about rampant/surging/the surge of American gun violence’. If we take the phrase ‘rampant gun violence’ (枪支暴力泛滥) on the first two pages of, an aggregator like Google News, we see around 7 stories containing it, all within the last month.

Surely this has some evidentiary value. ‘Rampant gun violence’, I think we can make the case, was used by MFA on 16 February and subsequently become a sort of slogan or refrain, appearing relatively frequently in articles aimed at Chinese people. (If you take a look at the Baidu page, and you’re very patient/good at recognising symbols, you’ll see it in red; you’ll also see more occurrences of simply ‘gun violence’ frequently co-occurring with US (美国)).

The same thing goes at least for the drug story. Taking a look at the Chinese version of the story, you’ll see its first section title is “毒品泛滥已成美国社会痼疾”, something like ‘rampant (/surging etc) drug [use] in the US has become an epidemic’ (ish), but noteworthyily we have the same word ‘rampant’ 泛滥. This weakly suggests something akin to a unified rhetorical strategy of portraying the US as a country in which all these rampant problems are out of control.

Moreover, if we do as we did above and google (baidu) the term 毒品泛滥 (‘drug rampant’) you’ll get a few hits but more interestingly you’ll see there are tons of stories about the US drug problem (not all of which contain the word ‘rampant’, although check out the third page of search results for many examples):

Again, this is all somewhat weak evidence, but shouldn’t count for nothing. There’s some reason to think that the Chinese view of the US, if indeed it focuses on these sorts of stories, is portraying a United States with the same problems liberals find in it, which are problems roughly concerning social chaos and disorder (more documenting of that here). That’s not the case for Russian rhetoric, as we’ll now see.


When Putin takes the world stage, the perspective we get of the US (or, to be more accurate, the West in general) is different. Consider this from all the way back in December 2021 where he talks about ‘cancel culture’, namely

the rejection of usual concepts like “mum,” “dad,” “family” and even “gender.” You might have heard that Joan Rowling also got her share when even Harry Potter actors ganged up on her because of her radical stance that a woman is a woman and a man is a man.

Cancel culture and gender coming out strong! And these are not isolated incidents. For a collection of some remarks of his about cancel culture see this (otherwise unnoteworthy) post by me; here we’ll concentrate on gender. Thus consider:

Do we really want, here, in our country, in Russia, instead of ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, to have ‘parent №1’, ‘parent №2’, ‘№3’? Have they gone completely insane? Do we really want … it drilled into children in our schools … that there are supposedly genders besides women and men, and [children to be] offered the chance to undergo sex change operations? … We have a different future, our own future.

It’s not only Putin, and not only high visibility events, in which we find this. Thus take a look at these posts by Vladimir Solovyov, which could be multiplied, and concerning which I apologize for not cropping nicely and placing them side-by-side:

Or this by government spokesperson Maria Zakharova:

Which even contains (the sentence before the highlighted one) the archetypical conservative joke about how ‘LGBT+’ is becoming an even longer acronym. Again, examples can be multiplied (and are a bit by me here).

Just as it’s surprising to read in Chinese media the sort of thing one would expect in Jacobin, so, surely, it calls out for explanation why Russian media figures just take over right wing talking points, to the point of literally just screenshotting the Daily Mail or Fox. In both cases we want to ask: why do these countries retrace, or straight out copy, positions well-occupied in the US media and ideological landscape? I try to answer that now.

Some Theories

Artlessly, I’ll just list some theories:

Theory 1: naive globalization about culture wars

Naive globalization about culture wars is the claim that culture wars are products that can be exported. Just as Nikes or iPhones or McDonalds restaurants can be found all over the world, so the US has exported its culture wars. And just as there’s something faintly ridiculous when you walk past, say, a McDonalds on a Greek island (it doesn’t fit!) so here: the stories don’t fit the country they’re in, but, well, that’s just how globalization seems to work.

While this maybe has some attractiveness, it seems to lack explanatory power. Because it’s not just the case that American cultural divides get represented in other countries. No: they get represented in a very peculiar way where one country seems to latch on to the one political side while another latches onto another. The simple theory doesn’t explain that. But we can suggest:

Theory 2: naive globalization and local character

We could complexify the first theory by suggesting that the US exports its culture wars but whether a given perspective lands in a given place depends on features of that place. So there would be something about Russia that makes the conservative position successfully take root there, and something about China that makes it hospitable to more liberal stories.

There surely must be something to this. But it’s lacking in an important way: it seems to suggest a specialness of the US that we should be cautious about going along with. If this theory is right, then while the US contains and exports both liberal and conservative idea, both Russia and China just contain one. That seems unlikely!

Instead, we surely want to say that all countries contain multitudes. Assume that there is some reality to the divide we’ve been looking at. Although I haven’t and won’t really try to analyse the nature of the divide (maybe some people are most offended by things they perceive to be unnatural, while others by what they perceive to be unlawful or chaotic?), maybe we can tentatively accept that there’s some division in reality corresponding to Western conservatives vs liberals that might show itself in non-Western societies. If there is, then there’s no reason not to think that a given country, just like the US (and the UK, and, as far as I can tell, other Western countries) wouldn’t have both sides. If that’s so, China would have its ‘conservatives’ reacting to perceived unnaturalness and its Russia its liberals reacting to perceived unlawfulness.

Then why is it the US that both positions are well represented while the other two countries seem to favour one of the two? I think there’s an answer: China and Russia don’t have either free media or free political systems. In China the state attitude is that ‘liberal’ in the sense that the stories that the state wants to promulgate are the ones about lawlessness and social chaos like drugs and guns. In Russia, the state attitude is ‘conservative’, concerned with perceived unnaturalness. But in both, and this is the main point, the non-state attitudes are suppressed. In Russia, the liberal anti-US case isn’t aired; in China, the conservative anti-US case is also left aside. That’s what explains the fact that it seems China is liberal — its conservative voices don’t get aired.

That, then, is my view. Let’s end with an interesting consequence. We are all familiar with the idea that living in a society in which media is controlled by state quashes many voices, to the detriment of the domestic policy of that state.

The perspective we’ve arrived at adds an interesting twist to this. The US has a certain propaganda advantage — it is better able to shape the opinion of its citizens. Say it wants to rouse anti-Chinese sentiment. It can rely on the Fox newses of the world to have stories that will appeal to conservative readers, and the Jacobins of the world to produce stories that will appeal to liberals (say, about surveillance or the treatment of minorities). By permitting both voices, both audiences — potentially — can be brought around to the anti-China side.

Not so for the other countries. If I am right, there are many in China, for example, who would be receptive to conservative anti-US messaging (for the simple reason that we’re assuming the liberal-conservative divide is universal, and so present in China). Such people are ill-served by the rhetoric of the MFA. That means, if we assume the point of such rhetoric is to create anti-US sentiment, that absence is regrettable from the state’s perspective. There are potentially anti-US people in the Chinese audience whom the accurate and factual stories about guns and crime don’t satisfy but who would be satisfied by Fox news-esque things. A missed market! And the same applies for Russia — there are, surely, Russians out there whose opinion of the US would worsen were they presented with the facts about the US’s gun and drugs program. They are not, because such messaging, I claim, isn’t in line with the state’s perspective. In both cases, then, the flattening of opinion in these systems in fact hurts the states, at least when it comes to accomplishing their foreign-political aims of making their people think badly of the US.

We end, then, with an explanation of the data with which we started. We see conservative critiques of the US in Russian media and ‘liberal’ critiques in the Chinese media because, for unexplained reasons, the states are respectively conservative and liberal and, being authoritarian, they silence the opposing voices that would otherwise receive attention, thereby harming their propagandistic aims.



Matthew McKeever

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books ( Academic philosophy at: