In tough economic times, politicians and political ad makers love to find scapegoats. From a campaigning politician’s point of view, if the economy is hurting, it has to be someone else’s fault, right? So it’s no surprise that China played an important role in the 2010 midterm elections. Republicans and Democrats alike needed an economic scapegoat, and China was an easy target. Unfortunately, instead of raising important, policy-based concerns about U.S.-China relations, many of these ads presented tired stereotypes of Chinese Americans to stir up fear and resentment in the American electorate.
In Pennsylvania, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ran an ad against Pat Toomey featuring a fortune cookie — a distinctly American invention — that cracked open and read: “Pat Toomey: he’s really not for you.” In Ohio, Rep. Zack Space ran an ad against his opponent that featured footage of dragons from a parade — in San Francisco. And one can’t even begin to count the number of anti-China ads that featured gongs in the audio.
Make no mistake: concerns about China are legitimate — and anyone trying to prevent politicians from talking about China is being unrealistic and is out of touch with the public’s concerns. But if we’re going to talk about China, let’s lay out a set of guidelines that keep our ads focused on China, not racial stereotypes:
1. China is fair game: China is an authoritarian country that does not value freedom. Because of unfair trade policies, they’re taking jobs from many Americans. The Chinese are becoming America’s primary rival on many fronts. These are all important concerns and we must continue to talk about them for as long as China continues to rise.
2. Chinese-Americans are NOT fair game: Obviously, don’t use footage of Chinese-Americans in ads about China. Don’t use racial stereotypes of Chinese-Americans to cut corners. Just like any modern campaign would be crazy to use fried chicken or jungle drums to depict Africans or African-Americans, using fortune cookies and gong sounds to depict China is just as offensive and just lazy.
3. Don’t try to be cute: Campaigns might not even realize it, but consider this the test: if you write a script about China and chuckle to yourself, you’re in dangerous territory. “Cute” and “ethnic” in political advertising don’t mix in any context.
4. Be mindful of our history: Xenophobia has always been a part of American history, and Asian-Americans have been no exception to racial prejudice. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Japanese internment camps, to the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982, politicians who use racial stereotypes to attack China are fueling a racial paranoia with deep roots. They do it not just against Chinese-Americans, but all Asian-Americans.
For an example of doing it right – despite my strong disagreement with its political message – watch the “Chinese Professor” ad by Citizens Against Government Waste. It goes through leaps and bounds to portray a Chinese classroom as accurately as possible. From the academic language used by the professor to the students' attitude, its accuracy is better than most Hollywood attempts. While the ad effectively attacks China’s emerging role as our rival, it doesn’t use a fortune cookie to achieve its goal. It doesn't need one.
From “Willie Horton” to “Harold, Call Me,” our campaigns have a history of race-baiting ads that worked. Some might read these guidelines and scoff, because who cares about offending such a small demographic? Chinese-Americans don't have the population leverage to respond with force at the ballot box. That may all be true, but given its rise on the world stage, we will be talking about China in campaign ads for the rest of our lives. We can either treat this issue thoughtfully and seriously – or we can continue to offend Americans and crack racial jokes.