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.

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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.

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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!

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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.