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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Cancel culture in Asia

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Alexander Lee

Section Editor for Asia

“Be careful or you’re going to get cancelled.”

How often do we hear this phrase paraded around modern society, frequently by honest-to-goodness people who are concerned about the impact that this will have on your social status? Cancel culture is a weaponized form of ostracism employed by the modern Left-wing to exclude and shame an individual or a group of people, often resulting in them being kicked out of a certain social circle.[1] Persons subject to this form of ostracism are said to have been ‘cancelled’.

The phenomenon has been present since 2015 and gained prominence around 2-3 years ago as a mutant form of the ‘call-out culture’ birthed from the aftermath of #MeToo.[2] Originating from Black Twitter within the US,[3] this limb of ostracism has spread like cancer to the point that it could be considered a global disease. Most often targets of ‘cancellation’ are high-profile celebrities and prominent figures whose activities are subject to public scrutiny by the ‘woke’ mob who more often than not wield the Executioner’s Blade. However, it would be foolish to make the mistake that ordinary, normal people are safe from the horde.

In 2021, it would be more than fair to say that this plague has spread across the pond to Asia – as evidenced from a range of key instances.

In China, the most famous instance was the boycott of Dolce & Gabbana in the aftermath of the brand’s China meltdown.[4] These were separate instances of short videos released by the fashion company on social media network, Weibo, to promote an upcoming runway extravaganza.[5] The video involved an Asian woman attempting to eat Italian cuisine using chopsticks while the narrator attempted to explain the proper way of eating such dishes – all while pronouncing the brand in a manner attempting to ridicule Chinese-accented English. This was subsequently taken down less than 24 hours after the public backlash. However, this was followed by the release of a screenshot between Gabbana and one Instagram user that depicted the former referencing China as the ‘poop emoji’ as well as calling the country ‘ignorant, dirty smelling mafia’.[6] Gabbana later denied this, stating his account had been hacked whilst offering an apology – but based on his history of offensive comments[7] this was viewed with skepticism by the public. Regardless, what followed was the cancellation of the 2nd November show in China with many of the models scheduled to walk the runway pulling out at the last second. Additionally, many around the world, most notably Chinese people in Italy, appeared at D&G’s flagship store to protest and demand a refund of their purchased products.[8]

In Singapore, the foremost example would be the incident revolving around influencer Wendy Cheng, more commonly known as Xiaxue. Xiaxue has had a history of producing controversial content through her blogs – including a post insinuating that people of certain races are more inclined to sexually harass and assault domestic helpers,[9] which ultimately led to an attempt to cancel her in 2020. However, unlike the general, submissive response to being ‘cancelled’ that most celebrities or public figures adopt,[10] Xiaxue fought back, taking to social media to record herself giving an exposition on why she shouldn’t be cancelled, and why such a culture is wrong in the first place. Still, some have regarded this as a bit rich coming from her, particularly one ‘Shrey Bhargava’ who claims that Xiaxue is now only adopting this stance because the woke mob had targeted her and that previously she had no problems in using such tactics (the very tactics that she is now condemning) to cancel him 3 years ago.[11]

Regardless, a tu quoque does not automatically invalidate a person’s premise. The intentions of Xiaxue are irrelevant to the salience of the point she makes. Indeed, in a series of Instagram stories and one video Xiaxue identifies the problems with cancel culture that academics have been discussing for a while now.

The first and perhaps most important is that it undermines the presumption of innocence. It is better to let the guilty go free than to punish the innocent – as we are told. The nature of cancelling encourages the woke mob to evaluate a person’s intent on face value, without any regard for context. If we look at this in Human Rights terms, it undermines ECHR Art 6 – the right to a fair trial. We have already seen subversion in other areas of politics through the #MeToo movement that sought, and thankfully so far has failed, to criminalize those accused of rape merely on a whim from the alleged victim – and the tremendous public backlash Christine Ford and her supporters received from trying to push the ‘believe all women without evidence’ narrative in an attempt to cancel and criminalize Bret Kavanaugh – which was eventually proven to be unsubstantiated.[12] As with criminal law, the presumption of innocence is a seminal doctrine in Western society that has helped make it great, and we would do well not to so nonchalantly do away with it.

Following closely behind in importance is the fact that the woke mob have consistently refused to strictly define what constitutes behaviour that is deserving of ‘cancelling’. The danger (as with the rape culture argument) with defining a phenomenon based on anecdotes is that there is no limit to what it can constitute. So it stands to reason that because of human nature and inherent desires for self-preservation, that without any checks and balances in place there will eventually come a point whereby those who wield the power of ‘cancelling’ will expand that definition to not just what they consider to be unacceptable social behaviour but to anyone who doesn’t agree with their own personal viewpoints, regardless of whether they are legally or morally right. Indeed, I would argue that we are already in the gestation phase of perverse censorship. This begs the question – who died and made the woke mob the ultimate moral arbiters of global society? The sheer arrogance to think that they get to be judge, jury and executioner of who gets to engage in discourse is astounding.

Finally, cancel culture is an obstacle towards an enlightened society – a goal which the Left ironically claim to be so obsessed with achieving. As political commentators have noted, if we are to discuss anything of value – anything at all concerning policy and the way in which a country can progress, then it will be inevitable that some topics will necessitate difficult and offensive discourse. We should have the right to formulate our thoughts carelessly and clumsily – and then be able to refine those thoughts through gaining knowledge and having conversations with others, because that is simply the nature of human reason.

All in all, I would urge the Asian community, myself included, to stop this disease of ‘cancelling’ in its early days before it becomes a full-blown pandemic – I don’t think we need another one at the moment. And to the countries that have already been victims of this, I would urge those who still hold integrity and righteousness as values close to their hearts to start standing up to the people propagating such a culture – after all, they are nothing more than a bunch of ideological bullies.


[1]McDermott, John, "Those People We Tried to Cancel? They're All Hanging Out Together" (The New York Times, 2 November 2019) accessed 3 April 2021. [2]Kinos-Goodin, Jesse, “Have we hit peak cancel culture” (CBC, 13 Dec 2018) accessed 3 April 2021 [3]ibid [4] YuHan Xu, “Dolce & Gabbana Ad (With Chopsticks) Provokes Public Outrage in China” (NPR, 1 Dec 2018) accessed 3 April 2021 [5] ibid [6] ibid [7] Emilia Miranda Idiens, “A Comprehensive Timeline of Dolce & Gabbana's Most Problematic Moments” (Fashion Magazine, 28 Nov 2018) accessed 3 April 2021 [8] (n 4) [9] Jane Zhang and Darryl Laiu, “Cancelling & cancel culture: Are they relevant to us in S’pore & why should we care?” (Mothership, 5 Aug 2020) accessed 3 April 2021 [10]It should be noted that ‘cancelling’ operates differently in regards to public figures and ordinary, run-of-the-mill people like you and me. For public figures, this usually comes in the form of boycotting their brand or calling for petitions to remove them from a certain role (e.g. to remove an actor from a certain role in a movie). In contrast, the ‘cancelling’ of ordinary people can simply be attempts to de-platform them from social media or ostracizing them from certain friendship groups or social circles. [11] Sabrina Seng, “S’porean Actor Questions Xiaxue’s Right To Decry Cancel Culture After She Allegedly ‘Cancelled’ Him” (MustShareNews, 27 Jul 2020) accessed 4 April 2021 [12] Alexander Bolton, “Grassley: No corroboration of Kavanaugh accusers' allegations in FBI report” (The Hill, 10 April 2018) accessed 4 April 2021

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