The “Chinese Professor” and American Scaremongering

The following American political advertisement has been making the rounds among China watchers even as it makes the rounds on television sets in America. James Fallows also wrote about the ad, praising its technique if not its content.

As I see it, there are two issues with this. The first is obvious, and Fallows points it out as well:

If you know anything about the Chinese economy, the actual analytical content here is hilariously wrong. The ad has the Chinese official saying that America collapsed because, in the midst of a recession, it relied on (a) government stimulus spending, (b) big changes in its health care systems, and (c) public intervention in major industries — all of which of course, have been crucial parts of China’s (successful) anti-recession policy.

This is undoubtedly true. But then Fallows takes things a step further than I’m willing to go:

Although I realize that many Chinese people will take offense at it, mainly the chortling section at the end, for me it passes the test for the proper use of “foreign menace” themes in US discourse. Although the ad is clearly meant to make Americans shudder at the idea of a Chinese-dominated future, at no point does it say that the canny foreigners did anything wrong. It uses them as a spur for us to do better — which, as laid out at length here, is the right way to use foreign comparisons. And the stated argument, even from the triumphalist Chinese professor, is that the Americans erred by turning away from their own values.

I can’t agree with that. For one thing, as he’s pointed out earlier, the ad is patently misleading. It’s hard for me to believe that any argument based on lies is ultimately what’s best for the American people. But moreover, the ad reinforces the paranoid idea that Chinese people are somehow intent on replacing America, and using their ownership of US debt to turn Americans into slaves. The bluish tint, the eerily synthetic-but-vaguely-asian-sounding soundtrack, the cultural revolution posters, and the sinister group laugh at the end of the advertisement are all meant to make us feel threatened. The professor is shifty from the start, but the whole room erupts into laughter at his joke and we, the audience, can see the truth: all Chinese people want to destroy or enslave America. This argument is just as stupid coming from American political groups as it is when it’s coming from the propaganda arm of the Chinese government.

Fallows is right; the ad doesn’t explicitly say the Chinese have done anything wrong, but the atmosphere created in the advertisement certainly implies it. And while this will probably work as a “spur for us to do better”, it will also work to further the deepening suspicions many Americans already harbor about Chinese people.

In fact, it already has. That link will take you to a poorly-doctored version of the same video, with the subtitles replaced. The new subtitles advance a far more paranoid (and profane) version of the China-America entanglement.

Of course, C.A.G.W. isn’t the only political group waving the “Chinese devils” flag to rally the troops ((Because now that there’s a democrat in office, we’ve got to stop all this wasteful spending and go back to the carefree, thrifty days of George W. Bush!)). Many democrats, faced with more difficult races than they were hoping for, have adopted similar tactics, although because they’re democrats, they’ve generally done it much less competently.

So, a message to all American political organizations: if you’re going to play the China Boogeyman card, could you please do it in a way that makes sense and is based on reality, rather than the made-up future where China is a small-government, high-tech, education capital but still apparently adorns the walls of its classrooms with Cultural Revolution era kitsch?

[Incidentally, there’s something else that bothers me about the ad. Granted I’m not a native speaker, and I’ve long since given up on hearing anything other than a southern or Taiwanese accent coming out of the mouth of anyone “Chinese” in something filmed in the US ((Apparently, CAGW couldn’t find any 东北人 to play the professor because they are all 活雷锋 and wouldn’t do something that demeaning.)), but the “professor’s” cadence on that last sentence makes my teeth grind. I’m not talking about the tones, the way he says 现在他们都得给我们干活 sounds weird. And now that I think about it, shouldn’t there be a change-of-state 了 there?]

0 thoughts on “The “Chinese Professor” and American Scaremongering”

  1. “But moreover, the ad reinforces the paranoid idea that Chinese people are somehow intent on replacing America…”

    Well, replace ‘Chinese people’ with ‘Chinese government’ (notwithstanding the blurred lines that exist there), and isn’t that premise fundamentally accurate?


  2. Except for the hokey economic analysis — CAGW is hitting Democrats for discretionary spending but the GOP’s deficit-financed tax cuts and the entitlements held sacred by both parties are collectively to blame for America’s foreign indebtedness — and the weirdly anachronistic classroom, the ad is remarkably good.*

    Of course, I say that as an American who knows the difference between the Chinese government and the Chinese people. But as any of us with time in China can attest, Chinese people always conflate the US government with the American people, so naturally the average American is bound to do the same. So I guess I agree that your fears about the ad are warranted. Fallows is a great guy but in this case he seems to forget that most Americans in both parties are not as high-minded as he is.

    Oh, and while you might be right that Dem China-bashing won’t be as slick as this ad, just wait until 2012 when Obama — or his primary opponent — make China into public enemy number one.

    * Being remarkably good doesn’t make the ad fair or even morally correct. The Daisy ad was unfair, Willie Horton was morally dubious. Fallows may well be right to lump this ad together with those others.


  3. I find the whole “I hear the communists are now better capitalists than us” thing quite annoying, I hear that line a lot here. Sadly, when people start believing their own propaganda, they begin to say more ridiculous and over the top things, no matter what country they are from. I used to always complain about China playing the foreign boogeymen card, now we are doing the same.


  4. It is not surprising the faceless Rich Americans who donate to these kind of groups. Their “Keep Fear Alive” campaign scapegoating the Chinese while exploiting Americans for their votes. Meanwhile, both the democrats and republicans refuse to raise taxes for the rich and significantly reduce the military. Rather these politicians want to keep the status quo and that’s going to be the downfall of America.


  5. I also strongly disagree with James Fallows. Whilst the ad does use China “as a spur for us to do better”, it’s still basing this spur on fear (and therefore hatred, in my view). The whole thing is crass and tacky, despite its apparently high production values. I dread to think who they’ve got backing them to be able to afford to make stuff like this.


  6. Fear mongering and hate has been effective in gathering support. In democratic nations you will always see this sort of thing because it works fairly well in getting the votes. It’s like the attacks on Obama saying that he is a Muslim, except many people do complain about that one. Who is going to complain about the anti-China ads on behalf of Chinese Americans, and more importantly, who will care even if someone (like Custer) does complain?

    In any case, I agree with another poster here that both the Dems and the Repubs will accuse each other of being China’s pawn, pro-China, or whatever in the 2012 presidential election cycle. Since you will see more of that in the future as long as China remains strong, you might as well get used to it.


  7. I found a pretty good analysis of this video.

    The guy pointed out a couple of things which has not been mentioned:

    1)The video portrayal of Chinese youth fixed on cultural revolution (with mao posters everywhere, references to the great leap forward, and large chinese flag). That’s hardly the case today.

    2)The ending which portrayed Chinese students laughing at the notion that now America works for them plays off your average white folk’s racial fears that they will have to work for an Asian. On a personal note I have never met a Chinese person who even thinks about China “owning/conquering” America. Only China bashers fantasize and then fear about this sort of thing.


  8. The advert can be explained in far more basic terms. Whenever a nation gets into trouble over one issue or the other it looks to put the blame on some one else, the easiest target that everyone is comfortable with is johnny forigner. China happens to be that country today. Deflection of blame in the short term is far less painless than taking responsibility and ultimately does not fix the underlying issue. In this case the US has over spent and over levered beyond its means, the leverage has been corrected mostly market but the dept still remains. Either they save or the dollar has to devalue, which it has recently.


  9. Great video and comments, but people need to realize that fear about deficits is ludicrous. The US government issues its own currency and hence does not need anyone to “lend” it money. Government debt is issued in order to control interest rates. The trade deficit shows that China sends the US more than it receives. If I give you two apples and you give me 5, who has the most power in this relationship?

    This fearmongering about government debt is just the latest in a long line of propaganda used by the elite to scare voters away from the government and into the hands of corporations (mostly banks).


  10. Interested,

    The trade deficit in this situation means that Americans are borrowing in order to consume and China is meeting that demand by investing in or lending to America. That does not bode well for the American economy.


  11. Nice job pointing out the pernicious effects of a political argument built on paranoia that will perpetuate and sharpen irrational jingoism, all done against the backdrop of inherently contradictory and inaccurate rhetoric which is all too often the required false foundation needed to induce the emotionally driven call to action. Irresponsible ad on many levels, but then again that seems to be the norm not the exception in today’s US political advertising.


  12. @ Interested, “The US government issues its own currency and hence does not need anyone to “lend” it money”, “The trade deficit shows that China sends the US more than it receives.” What are you basing these premises on?

    Unchecked currency generation, especially where no underlying tangible standard of value exists for each additional monetary unit (e.g. the gold standard), does nothing but devalue the currency in an expectation/stability based currency valuation system. So you can’t just print more money to avoid debt, unless the country existed in an economic vacuum. Regarding trade deficit, true if I was trading you product for product as the medium of exchange then our deficit would show the US is receiving more than it puts out, but there is an intermediary ignored in your assertion, the medium of exchange is money so the product to product ratio ignores a fundamental part of the equation.


  13. Hopeless. If nobody watches the lying liberal media and FOX News, then at least TV shows reach a wide audience. With shows like Survivor, The Amazing Race and even America’s Next Top Model having visited and shot in China and presenting a country not at all resembling the cultural revolution, Americans still cannot let go of the 1960s image.

    Pathetic. But not surprising given how 20% Americans think Obama is a Muslim.


  14. Of course, I say that as an American who knows the difference between the Chinese government and the Chinese people.

    Welcome. But now you’ve seen how our resident racist stuart plays here in the China blogosphere.


  15. I’ve been thinking about it, and I still think this ad needs to be seen in a somewhat more nuanced way than just good/bad. I think it’s very important to note that this ad is primarily a message to Americans about America. The message is, we better shape up in a hurry or the future does not look bright for us. I personally agree with that message completely. At the same time, the ad uses the “China threat” theme as a tool to emphasize the dangers of our current course. The idea of “China threat” is flawed and dangerous, so I don’t approve of its use in this commercial. Still, “China threat” is only a secondary theme here: the main theme is the “America threat” of America derailing its own future.

    I wasn’t bothered by the way that the ad plays fast and loose with what China looks and sounds like. I didn’t think that the professor was supposed to be the voice of what the Chinese government is actually doing currently. I thought it was unremarkable that the ad’s makers were using some artistic license in imagining one Chinese professor 20 years from now who has reached the same conclusions about American political issues that the makers themselves actually hold. The Mao posters didn’t bother me, either. After all, they are just an exaggerated version of what China 2010 is actually like: people pay pro forma lip-service to Maoism and revolutionary ideas, while actually believing in a market economy. Nothing in the commercial implies that the students think of the Mao posters as more than just decorations.


  16. This is but a reflection of western official narrative on China – yes Custer some ya expat China bloggers are part of to some degree.

    Must we denigrade China even on DOMESTIC policy that lands squarely on our leaders in DC?


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