Viewpoint: Bashing China Is the Politics of the Weak

The return of a "Chinese menace" ad shows that America's not ready to face itself

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Ever wonder what our Chinese overlords say about us behind closed doors? A recent political ad imagines it vividly. First broadcast in 2010, it was aired again last week by the right-wing group Citizens Against Government Waste and Americans for Prosperity Foundation. The ad depicts a Chinese professor in the not distant future, explaining to masses of Chinese students how a debt-crippled, Big Government America ended up a subordinate nation. “America tried to spend and tax itself out of a great recession … Of course, we owned most of their debt. So now they work for us,” the professor concludes. It’s a deft piece of propaganda, using a Mandarin talk track and cold lighting to stoke our fears of decline.

(MORE: In Ohio, China Is a Potent Campaign Weapon)

To be clear, when I say “our fears,” I mean American fears. I am American. But I’m Chinese American, which is why I do not approve this message. It has a kernel of truth; the U.S. is indeed deeply in hock to China. I see the motivations of the ad’s creators, framing the debt as the scariest issue in America and suggesting an agenda of fiscal austerity as our only safe haven. But mainly I wonder this: How do those who are moved by this ad see me?

Asian Americans always react with trepidation in moments like these because we are subject to truly bipolar stereotypes. Days after the “Chinese professor” ad began to air, stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal painted Asians as robotic test takers swamping New York City’s elite public schools and as a diasporan Tiger Nation within America.

A wave of alien adversaries or a mass of hypercompetitive newcomers? These are the two dominant images of Asians in our culture. One marks Asians with indelible foreignness. The other damns them with excessive praise. An Asian student quoted in the Times piece describes being told, “ ‘You’re Asian, you must be smart.’ And you’re not sure it’s a compliment or an insult.”

Excessive praise may seem like nothing to complain about — after all, it’s praise. But what connects the model-minority stereotype with the more menacing one is this story line: these relentless Asians threaten a soft, complacent, entitled America.

(MORE: Asian-American Dilemma: Good News Is Bad News)

This is a collective case of what psychologists call projection. We Americans fear we’ve lost something — our vigor, our general No. 1–ness — and seeing those traits in others now, we resent them for what we have become.

It’s time to shed this psychology. Imagine a different ad about America’s debt. It would tell how Republicans and Democrats alike chose to spend more, tax less and let Wall Street run rampant. It would challenge each party to defy its entrenched interests and get the U.S. in shape. It would never have to mention China.

But of course the “Chinese professor” ad is airing again because the campaign has made it timely. President Obama and Governor Romney agree: China’s a threat. It steals our jobs (with Romney’s active help, claims Obama). It manipulates its currency (with Obama’s passive assent, charges Romney). It’s tricky. It’s mean!

(MORE: Viewpoint: Civility Is Overrated)

Whoever wins the election will have to lead a more grownup reckoning with China, our own challenges and the demographic reality of our nation. China isn’t keeping America from getting its house in order; America is. Meanwhile, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing group in the country and Chinese Americans the largest Asian-American subgroup. Isn’t this a plus for America?

We do need to deal with the debt. We need to improve our schools. We need to make American industry more competitive. We need to face China in all its frenemy complexity. But the first fact we need to face is that we includes me — and many other Americans like me.

5 comments
caecilia
caecilia

Person A doesn't have any money, and Person B lends Person A some money for lunch. Then Person A blames Person B for lending him money

khildegraff
khildegraff

Ohh..."President Clinton's speechwriter". That explains everything about this off-the-mark editorial. First, world politics is close to (not exactly, but close to) a zero-sum game. The ascendency of the U.S. from 1945-2005 or so, allowed it to set a global framework in many areas, which other countries pretty much had to hew to (and if they didn't, they got embargoed). China's ascendancy will allow it to do the same (see: Senkaku Islands, Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands; see also the "Special Administrative Areas (SARs)" of Macau and Hong Kong; see also Africa; and of course, don't forget China's overseas province of Taiwan). Economic and military power always translate into political power. Would a U.S. leftist tell Fidel Castro that his vision of Yankee Imperialism is just plain wrong? Of course not. The U.S. leftist would instead get a Ph.D. in Latin American relations at Georgetown and travel yearly to Cuba to do academic research. So why is it forbidden for a U.S. rightist to talk about the rise of China and its new open-market communist Imperialism? How is that "bashing"?

As for the pan-Asian implication and the "Asian-American" thing, that's just silly. "Asians" in the U.S. are in no way as homogeneous a grouping as, say, Hispanics (and even Hispanics sometimes do not feel all that much kinship ... viz, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Argentinians). Or does the author mean to say that Korean-Americans and Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans really hang together and feel some kind of kinship? Maybe in Hawaii and at the Asian-American Student Union in Collegeville, but certainly no where else. とんでもない な。   

tonyt
tonyt

Fact is, - it's the US citizens etc, who own the largest share of the total American debt, not China, and the US Government must keep the public correctly informed on this.

arvay
arvay

When I saw that adI i thought we had been transported by a time warp back to the 1960s or earlier -- when China was a blank space on the map and Americans' atavistic racial fears and ignorance could be used as a political hammer. Well, the kind of people who produced that ad want to revoke the progress since the 1960s and enough of them are still around to produce the Tea Party  -- essentially a nativist/ignoramic weapon in the hands of the One Percent that can be used to keep the undereducated fighting phantoms while they continue to sap the nation.

Actually, if there ever is a Chinese professor telling his or her students why America went under, the narrative is more likely to cover a narcissistic leadership class that hobbled the country with a fake "austerity" and turned people against each other along racial and social lines -- and killed off the middle class -- turning America into a two-class society the type of  which  China gradually emerged from  -- leaving the North Americans behind. 

The supreme irony, he or she might point out -- was that these craven, bungling and increasingly ineffective leaders scared their confused masses with the "menace" of a rising China -- which succeeded not only because of hard work but because it had a leadership class without Gordon Gecko or Donald Trump.

NoCompunction
NoCompunction

@arvay Multiple points, multiple problems.1) The phrase atavistic ignorance makes no sense , but even if it did it would be illogical to describe any country as having that quality: how can you build a country if the people who live in it are ignorant?2) If you bothered to watch the ad, it has nothing to do with race, but ideology.3) You're going to have to do better the usual plutocracy tripe. If you bother to read the news, you'd know that the Bush tax cuts are in serious consideration of being lapsed.4) Where do you get this effrontery to think that China will emerge from class warfare? Or that that country's leadership class has no Gordon Gecko's or Donald Trump's?5) If you don't know what you're talking about, then you shouldn't be posting on a website like that.