A fearful view of China

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By John Pomfret
Friday, October 29, 2010

IN DETROIT It's 2030 in Beijing. A professor addresses a class of students. "Why do great nations fail?" he asks. "The Ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the United States of America."

"They all make the same mistakes, turning their back on the principles that made them great," he says, speaking in a high-tech lecture hall festooned with portraits of Mao Zedong.

"America tried to spend and tax itself out of a great recession. . . . Of course, we owned most of their debt," he says with a chuckle, then turns more serious. "So now they work for us."

The class erupts in self-satisfied snickers.

Released last week, "The Chinese Professor" is the latest and most inflammatory of a series of China-related advertisements appearing across the United States. Feeding off the nationwide anxiety about high unemployment numbers and deep worries about the country's place in the world, the ad is part of a wave of campaign publicity that casts China as benefiting from the U.S. economic slide.

More than a spasm of political season piling-on, the ads underscore a broader shift in American society toward a more fearful view of China. Inspired by China's rise and a perceived fall in the standing of the United States, the ads have historical parallels to the American reaction to Japan in the 1980s and to the Soviet threat.

"I get this sense that they're going to take over the world," said Christie Kemp, an accounting student in Farmington Hills, Mich., who used to work for a tool company that has since relocated to China. "They're just hungrier than we are. They want it more."

Polls by the Pew Global Research Center indicate that more Americans still have a generally favorable view of China (49 percent) than those who don't (36 percent). But 47 percent of respondents consider China's growing economy a bad thing and 79 percent see its modernizing military as a threat. On op-ed pages, columnists criticize China for protecting its currency, continuing to jail a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, refusing to embrace stronger sanctions against Iran and angling to obtain Western technology.

"Everybody's angry at China," said Bonnie S. Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "It's a free-for-all right now, and there's very few people defending them."

Hollywood portrayals of China have turned darker. In the movie "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," Chinese cash is perfidious. In this past summer's "The Karate Kid," a laid-off Detroit autoworker heads to Beijing, where a Chinese bully terrorizes her son. And a remake of the 1984 cult classic "Red Dawn," about six American high school students who take on the Soviet Red Army, has the kids fighting the Chinese. (The film, which was due out this month, has not been released because its studio, MGM, is facing bankruptcy - prompting jokes about American economic impotence on blogs in China.)

"I worry about that movie," said Haipei Shue, president of the National Council of Chinese Americans, a Washington-based organization made up mostly of immigrants from mainland China. "How will the kids at my son's school look at him after they see it? And how will my son look at them? Maybe they can laugh it away, but it could be something that tips the balance."

Obama administration officials have responded to the worries about China by calling for a focus on renewal in the United States but also by toughening their tone toward Beijing.

"It is not China's fault that we went from having a budget surplus to being indebted with a trillion-dollar deficit," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview last week with the historian Michael Beschloss. "Those are decisions we made through our political system. So we have to get our own house in order."

"It is heartbreaking to think that China would be the leader in clean-energy technology because we can't get our act together," she added. "If we stand on the sidelines and just complain and try to oppose whatever China is doing . . . and don't deal with our own issues at home, I don't know what the future will hold."

China has itself partly to blame for the change in the United States' view, analysts say, because it has not delivered on the administration's expectations for a strengthened relationship. Despite intense U.S. pressure, China allowed the value of its currency to rise only about 3 percent against the dollar. And although it voted for enhanced sanctions against Iran and North Korea, its enforcement of those efforts appears weak.

In Washington, the political shift away from China has been fast, with even benign issues becoming fraught with problems when the country is involved. Last month, for example, when the Chinese manufacturer Anshan Iron and Steel announced plans to participate in the construction of a steel mill that would employ scores of Americans in Mississippi, 50 members of Congress called for an investigation.

On the campaign trail, both Democrats and Republicans are slinging mud at China. Currently, 250 ads targeting China are being aired in just under half of the 100 competitive districts, such as the battle for the Senate seat in Pennsylvania between Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Joe Sestak. Sestak's ads come equipped with a gong and this line: "Pat Toomey - he's fighting for jobs . . . in China. Maybe he ought to run for Senate . . . in China."

At a news conference last week, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias accused Republican Mark Kirk - locked in a tight race in Illinois for President Obama's old Senate seat - of "economic treason" for raising money from American businessmen based in China.

"It's not out of the norm for political ads to go looking for the straw man or the villain to generate an emotional response," said Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which studies trends in political ads. That was done with Mexico in the 1990s, in ads opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as with Japan in the 1980s. The problem, he noted, is that "political ads are the leading indicator of the next set of policies."

The Chinese professor ad was made for Citizens Against Government Waste, an advocacy group that grew out of the Reagan administration's efforts to cut the federal budget.

Thomas Schatz, the group's president, stood by the ad and said it wasn't xenophobic. The ad takes aim at the Obama administration's stimulus program, but like the United States, China primed its economy with a massive stimulus package, too.

"The target isn't China - it's us," he said.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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