CHINAPHOBIA: An Unsavory Political Campaign Weapon in 2010

By October 16, 2010The WIN Column

China is evil! And any politician who does anything to help China or its economy is evil too! Or at least that’s what you’re led to believe if you’ve been watching political campaign commercials for the upcoming 2010 midterm elections. Candidates from both the Democratic and Republican parties have turned fear of “Big Red” into an election weapon – hoping to court voters by painting their opponent as sympathetic to China. The trend is disturbing, regressive and bordering on racism. In today’s multicultural America, politicians should evolve past such blatant xenophobia.

Recently, the New York Times reported that at least 29 candidates have unveiled advertisements in the past week accusing their opponents of being too sympathetic to China. 29 candidates!! I read that and was dumbfounded. I found online a couple of examples cited by the New York Times and think they are especially worth mention.

Example #2 from Democrat Zack Space.

So you don’t think I’m picking on any particular party, Democratic Congressman Zack Space is running a particularly vivid commercial. He accuses his opponent of supporting free-trade politics that causes Ohio to lose 91,000 jobs to China. The commercial ends with a Chinese parade dragon on screen, and if that were not racist enough, a voice over saying “As they say in China, xie xie Mr. Gibbs!” At least there was no Chinese music playing in the background. I was, however, waiting again for martial artists and their flying chopstick weapons to zoom into the picture.


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What in the name of Sino-US relations is going on? The answer is simple: politicians are preying on fear. Election campaigns have long exploited voters’ anxieties – rather than just focusing on a candidate’s best virtues for the job. Candidates need to villainize their opponents; what better way than to associate rivals with something voters fear? It is not a new phenomenon. The 1980s witnessed “Japan-bashing” due to the rise of automotive manufacturing in Japan. Then, the 1990s saw some Mexico-phobia related to NAFTA. Of course, over the past decade, politicians have called upon anti-terrorism and anti-Middle Eastern sentiment to get out votes. In this election year, voters are clearly concerned about the economy and struggling job market in the U.S.; that makes it easy to blame Big Red China for taking away American jobs.

But what disturbs me most is that this Chinaphobia is not just a dialogue about why American jobs may be lost to foreign countries (a perfectly fair topic for campaign discourse). Some of the recent political advertisements go beyond that. They channel fear of Communism. They exploit racial stereotypes. They subtly (and some times not so subtly) try to call upon some voters’ latent racism and xenophobia against foreigners in general and China in particular.

Perhaps I’m a bit oversensitive to the issue because I am an Asian-American (and also an immigrant to the U.S.) I grew up in the era of bad Asian stereotypes on television. (My personal favorite is the 1970s “Ancient Chinese Secret” commercial for Calgon detergent. Everyone repeat after me: “My husband. Some hot shot. Here’s his ancient Chinese secret: Calgon.”) For goodness sake, it is 2010. It is time to have more positive racial imagery in all media content, but especially in the advertising spots we get from political candidates. Call me silly but I hope that people vying to represent the American people in elected office should emulate American multicultural values – rather than sinking to xenophobia.

The Chinaphobia in these 2010 political commercials is degrading, disparaging and demeaning. Electoral discourse needs to change. No more fear of foreigners. It’s time to find common ground with our world neighbors. Let’s start with China. After all, I hear their people are really good with chopsticks.