There has been a remarkable trend in the midterm elections this year – a common theme, across both Democratic and Republican campaign ads, of fear of China. At least 29 candidates, according to The New York Times, have released advertising spots that play on the notion that their rivals have been all too eager to trade and outsource jobs to China, at the cost of American employment.
And then, there’s this video, which has probably received the most buzz since it was released last week.
The highly stylized “Chinese Professor” video, made by Citizens Against Government Waste, an organization that has waged a “decades-long fight” against government overspending, is set in a somber auditorium in Beijing in 2030 A.D. The subtitled short features a professor who gleefully recounts America’s failings in dealing with its own spending and federal programs, ending with the final statement: “Of course, we owned most of their debt – so now they work for us.” He laughs, and the room full of Chinese students (actually Chinese-American extras) laughs with him.
The Atlantic’s James Fallows has called the spot “phenomenal,” praising it for its style and technique (although he has acknowledged the ad’s glaring inaccuracies, as many have argued that China’s own $580 billion stimulus plan helped it avoid the worst of the financial crisis). Fallows has also stated that he does not find the ad’s message to be anti-China. “[A]t no point does it say that the canny foreigners did anything wrong,” Fallows writes. “It uses them as a spur for us to do better.” Okay, maybe, I told myself, trying to keep an open mind while deciding momentarily to overlook the Orwellian depiction of a sterile, smugly cackling China.
But it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that the ad doesn’t contribute to any xenophobic feelings against China when juxtaposed with the dozens of other campaign advertisements playing on the threat of an impending takeover by the rising nation.
Sponsored by Zack Space, Democratic congressional incumbent in Ohio, this ad attacks challenger Bob Gibbs as a proponent of free trade policies that the ad claims contribute to the loss of 91,000 jobs in Ohio to China. The clincher is at the 0:23 mark, when the narrator says, “As they say in China, xie xie, Mr. Gibbs!” Behind the text is a short video clip not of China, but a Chinatown street in my hometown of San Francisco, celebrating the Lunar New Year parade.
“Modernizing and Growing”
This ad, paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, attacks Pennsylvania representative Pat Toomey, whom it says voted in favor of granting China special trade status, costing the state jobs. At the 0:23 mark, a fortune cookie cracks opens on screen, revealing a sad-faced strip of paper inside that reads, “Pat Toomey. He’s not for you.”
These are just some of the examples of this campaign season’s disturbing (though, admittedly, somewhat hilarious) ads that teem with fears of outsourcing American jobs to our menacing competitor in the Far East. There are quite a few more, linked below. The message is clear, and it’s easy to see how it might appeal to the American voter. Americans are looking for financial security in a time when high levels of unemployment still run rampant and the federal deficit still looms above our heads. China, meanwhile, is growing at an exponential rate, and is widely acknowledged to be the next great world power (giving some credence to my parents’ decision to send me to Chinese school as a child).
But sending a political message is one thing, while using lowest-common-denominator tropes is quite another. Gong sounds, mandolin music and fortune cookies hark back to the days of Fu Manchu buffoonery, which, despite all our political progress, seems to be revived every so often. But I’m reminded of something a bit more sinister.
Conflating the foreign with the American is not a new transgression – and I’m sure this is an issue all too familiar for Latino and Muslim-American communities. And as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jeff Yang commented yesterday on NPR, “Certainly among Asian-Americans, we’ve seen this show before and it doesn’t end prettily.” In the 1980s, the threat of the rising eastern power at the time, Japan, had fatal consequences for Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man in Detroit. In June 1982, Chin was beaten to death by two former auto workers, who apparently mistook him for Japanese as they told him, “It’s because of you little motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” The unsettling legacy not just of Chin’s murder, but also the fact that his two attackers received no prison time, sits uncomfortably in the background of this year’s campaign ads and the political fears they espouse.
The thorny issues of outsourcing, free trade and the precarious future of U.S.-China relations warrant thorough discussion. But to aim so much lower by creating an enemy of the “other” is not only lazy, but irresponsible to constituencies that expect a measure of fairness and clarity from their leaders.
More campaign ads:
Barbara Boxer: Carly Fiorina “Outsourcing”
Harry Reid: Sharron Angle “A Foreign Worker’s Best Friend”
Spike Maynard: Nick Rahall “Made in China”
Ryan Frazier: Earl Perlmutter “His Own Words”