Earlier this month, lucky Michigan viewers of Super Bowl XLVI were serenaded with a political attack ad that is, to borrow a word from the ever poetic Mitt Romney, "severely" stupid. It takes the game of China-bashing to a new level, just as Chinese President-Select Xi Jinping arrives in the United States for a friendly visit.
The 30-second ad, put out by Michigan Republican and U.S. Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra (who hopes to take on incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow in the fall), opens with a Fu Manchurian clang of a gong, followed by a young Chinese woman riding a bike leisurely down a narrow dirt path lined by rice paddies. Sashaying to a stop, she delivers a beguiling Anna May Wong smile, and speaks in a sweet voice peppered with just enough grammatical errors to bite like salt on a fresh wound: "Thank you, Michigan Senator Debbie Spend-it-now. Debbie spends so much American money. You borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you, Debbie Spend-it-now." The scene then cuts to an avuncular Hoekstra summarizing the moral of this tale about faraway places: "I think this race is between Debbie Spend-it-now and Pete Spend-it-not." Zing.
America has plenty of problems that need fixing. Pretending they're the fault of some menacing Red threat won't help us solve them.
For decades, Michigan has sadly watched the decline of its prized auto industry — a loss that has led to racially driven anger and sledgehammers smashing Japan-made cars. It all culminated in the tragic death of Vincent Chin in 1982. Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by a Chrysler plant superintendent, after being mistaken for someone of Japanese heritage (as if that would have made it okay). Considering that history, the racial insensitivity of running this ad in Michigan of all places, and dubbing it "yellowgirl" in the HTML code on Hoekstra's campaign website, is simply beyond the pale.
What Hoekstra didn't realize, apparently, was that the setting and costume used in the ad is identifiably Vietnamese, not Chinese. Indeed, the ad has drawn attention in China not for its Sinophobic content, but for its comical misidentification.
Of course, the "yellowgirl" ad is not a single, standalone incident of China-bashing, but one of the many we have seen and will continue to see in political campaigns as well as media coverage. The disturbingly long list includes the infamous "Chinese professor" ad put out by Citizens Against Government Waste during the midterm elections in 2010, Rush Limbaugh's ridiculous mimicry of the Chinese president's speech ("ching chong, look see"), and countless attack ads in state-level elections that flash an opponent's unflattering headshot with the words "China" and "jobs" looming in the background.
Among the many perils of China-bashing is that it leaves voters misinformed. But it also unfairly and xenophobically blames the "other" for America's abundance of self-inflicted problems. Case in point: As a member of Congress, Hoekstra voted for the $700 billion bailout of the financial system in 2008. He voted again and again for budgets with big-time deficits — trillions of dollars worth, over time. That's not exactly the fault of our "yellowgirl." Forget "Pete Spend-it-not." This big-spending Republican is more like "Pete Hoe Extra."
The truth is, blaming China or any other country for the loss of American jobs focuses on symptoms rather than disease. In our global economy, capital, given its greedy nature, flows to wherever it can reap the best profit. It is incumbent upon national governments to create attractive environments for investment. As for trade imbalance, the root cause is not currency manipulation, but economic ideology. As long as our national economic life is fixated on finance — and Americans are more focused on buying mutual funds than on growing apple orchards in their backyards —the traditional mode of production will take a backseat. Take GM. Prior to the banking crisis, the financial arm of the company, GMAC (now Ally Financial), had grown so big that its revenue exceeded the actual car-making business. When an automobile company makes more money in finance than in manufacturing, should we really be surprised to see the flight of manufacturing jobs?
The miraculous turnaround of GM — it rose from near bankruptcy to become the No. 1 auto company in the world — is not only a powerful testament to the importance of government and industry working together to create jobs. It also sheds light on the futility and irresponsibility of politicians who continue to bash China. It wasn't politically motivated scapegoating of foreign automakers that fixed GM.
But look at the GOP presidential field. Mitt Romney wants to wage a trade war with China. Not to be outdone, Rick Santorum simply wants to go to war with China: "I don't want to go to a trade war, I want to beat China. I want to go to war with China." Newt Gingrich has a bold plan for a moon colony, a pipe dream strongly motivated by the Cold War era desire to beat the Chinese. When Jon Huntsman withdrew from the race, Republicans lost the only candidate who had any credibility or capability of dealing with China as effectively as the Obama administration has.
The Obama approach is twofold: On the one hand, he welcomes the rise of China, acknowledging its benefit to the United States and the world. On the other hand, he continues to chide and pressure China to play by the rules and to improve its human rights record. Criticism and competition are healthy. Bashing and warmongering are not. You can't blame a country for continuing to loan you money, buying up your Treasury bills to sustain your lavish lifestyle of deficit spending. You can't criticize a country for having a poor human rights record when your own companies, such as Apple and Cisco, are helping to fuel the rise of poor, exploitive working conditions at Chinese factories, or assisting the modernization of the surveillance technology of Chinese police departments that crack down on the people.
It's time to lay off China. America has plenty of problems that need fixing. But pretending they're the fault of some menacing Red threat won't help us solve them.