Critics Say Political Ads Hint Of Xenophobia

Recently, a number of candidates across the political spectrum have run advertisements that charge Congress, the White House and so-called 'free traders' with helping China take an expanding role in the American economy. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with Jeff Yang, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, about the ads and whether they actually work to get people to the polls.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Race, ethnicity and cold hard cash - this is the most expensive midterm political campaign in history. The bulk of that money goes for advertising, of course, and most of it's on television. And there's a significant number of commercials focused not on the U.S., but on China. Joining us to talk about the trend is Jeff Yang. He's a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Jeff Yang, thanks for being with us.

Mr. JEFF YANG (Columnist, San Francisco Chronicle): Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: So Jeff, by last count, there's at least 29 ads focusing on China. What's going on?

YANG: In a way, this is more or less just another manifestation of kind of the paranoid style of American politics, where - especially in times of economic duress - there is a marginal attitude that kind of comes from the mainstream, which is a fear of immigrants, a fear of foreigners, a fear of the outside. It's a way of redirecting attention in some ways. And political candidates often seize on this as kind of a get-out-of-jail free card.

It's a way of not talking about real issues, a way of demonizing an opponent by associating them with a demonic other. And in this case, you know, it's China, but it could just as easily have been - and is, often - Latinos or Middle Easterners or Muslims, and so forth.

LYDEN: Well, let's go back to focusing on the ads. They've run hundreds of times. You mention 29 ads. This is an ad released by Democrat Zack Space. He's running a congressional race in Ohio, tough one, against Republican Bob Gibbs. Here's the ad.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Representative ZACK SPACE (Democrat, Ohio): I'm Zack Space, and I approve this message.

Unidentified Man #1: Bob Gibbs is a proud free trader.

State Senator BOB GIBBS (Republican, Ohio): I'm a free trader.

Unidentified Man #1: Gibbs wants more free trade with China to increase their standard of living. But what about Ohio? We've lost 91,000 jobs to China through unfair trade deals like NAFTA, the kind of deals Gibbs wants more of.

Sen. GIBBS: I'm a free trader.

Unidentified Man #1: 91,000 jobs. As they say in China, (foreign language spoken), Mr. Gibbs. Free trading, job killing Bob Gibbs. Tell him free trade isn't free.

LYDEN: And I do want to say, we noticed a visual element of this ad. While the voiceover refers to China, the video onscreen is a shot of San Francisco's Chinatown. So, is this working?

Mr. YANG: Well, you know, just in reference to the San Francisco thing, I will say that is one of the most insidious and kind of ominous aspects of this rising tide of media hostility towards China, which is that there's a blurry line between Chinese and Chinese-Americans. Now, the question as to whether it's working, I mean, like I said, it's almost like a weird win-win solution for candidates of both parties.

This is perhaps the biggest piece of bipartisan common ground that Republicans and Democrats have found, that, you know, China is creeping evil, right? And because Chinese certainly don't vote, you know, not in our elections and because there is this opportunity to leverage the fact that we've lost so many jobs during the recession, to point at this shadowy third party, this ominous you know, kind of puppet master, yeah, it does work. It strikes fear. A lot of these ads are very effective. Even if they're using, you know, kind of ridiculous imagery in doing so.

LYDEN: Let's look at another one. Their spot focuses on a professor. It's the year 2030. He's giving a lecture in Chinese about too much spending and how that caused the downfall of the United States. This ad is in Chinese, but you can tell that the tone is ominous. I thought it had the sort of Orwellian Big Brother look to it. We'll just listen to it in Chinese.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #3: You can change the future. You have to. Join Citizens Against Government Waste to stop the spending that is bankrupting America.

LYDEN: So this spot has been run by Citizens Against Government Waste, which is at least an entity that's been around for a while. We know who they are. And so then he says, this professor, we the Chinese now own Americans' debt. So, that means that they work for us. As a person of Taiwanese descent, you know, how do you feel about these and what people are saying about them in Asian communities?

Mr. YANG: Well, you know, certainly among Asian-Americans, we've seen this show before and it doesn't end prettily. In the past, every time that there's been attempts to craft this external villain, the people who are here in the United States and were born here, are native here, were raised here, or legally immigrated here, we end up kind of catching the by-blow. And you saw that in World War II with Japanese-Americans being interned. You've seen that in the '70s when Japan, Inc. was rising. You know, it's something that is certainly being discussed, certainly kind of raising real fears among Asian-Americans right now.

LYDEN: And, of course, the U.S. is going to have to deal in trade relations with China after this election.

Mr. YANG: That's the biggest question around this. You might very well get elected on a platform of China is the enemy. But can you really govern that way? And I think that's the question these candidates have to ask.

LYDEN: Yeah. Well, Jeff Yang is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He joined us from New York. Jeff, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. YANG: Thank you, Jacki.

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