Fanning the Yellow Firestorm

> Western media and the oriental in orientalism, from the December 2007 issue of Chengdoo magazine (www.chengdoo.com)

By Mark Hiew

“Too many problems with China, they make cheap crap that everyone buys bulk and then they use the profits to build up a weapons force. China is very dangerous. We should buy American and keep our economy going,” wrote ‘CC’, a commentator on the weblog Cruft, in reaction to the recent recall of the Aqua Dots toy, echoing a growing number of western consumers (http://cruftbox.com/blog/archives/001442.html).

According to a recent poll by Harris Interactive, 45 percent of Americans said they will avoid buying toys made in China this holiday season. Given the recent escalation in negative sentiment toward goods manufactured in China, what might we infer of broader Western perceptions regarding China, its culture, and ultimately, Chinese people the world over?

Western media outlets have focused for years on Cold War era-based China themes: the suppression of human rights and democracy, infanticide, fixed exchange rates and the country’s growing influence overseas. Rarely has China been portrayed positively in Western media.

In movies, Chinese still remain a mix of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan kung fu fighters; pretty, qipao-wearing women; and rickshaw-pulling coolies. In the news, they are often described as a monolithic collection of faceless factory workers, alternatively oppressed and threatening to Western hegemony. In Western media, if Chinese are not dramatically different from what constitutes “normal” (read: Caucasian) people, then they rarely register at all.

It is natural tendency for humans to use their standing in relation to others to provide validation of their own identity. Anyone who has ever been asked (or told) about the habits of ‘foreigners’ as if a spokesperson for all non-Chinese people can probably relate. Similarly, when Westerners think of China and its citizens as one monolithic object, rather than a diverse collection of varied people and things, it becomes easier for them to differentiate this “object” from themselves—and, more importantly, harder for them to see the other as fully human.

History shows that a nation becomes more unified when its citizens agree on a common enemy, and for many countries, such as the United States, China’s economic vitality makes it a ready trade foe. Chinese-product scares over the past year have fueled a consumer backlash against Chinese goods. Toxic toothpaste and poisoned pet food were the first stories to break. Then, toy giant Mattel retracted millions of toys for toxic lead levels it blamed on Chinese manufacturers, only to later issue a public apology when its own design flaws were found to be at fault. More recently, Aqua Dots, a toy slated to be a top seller during the upcoming season, were recalled, following the hospitalization of several small children who swallowed the small beads, found to contain gamma hydroxy butyrate (GHB), labeled, in typically sensational fashion, as the “date rape drug.”

Throughout all of this, Chinese manufacturers, or simply China, have generally taken the brunt of the blame, and the role that importers, distributors, retailers, and trade regulations play is largely overlooked by media and consumers. In so doing, a complex issue becomes oversimplified into a classic white mythology: the pure American infant being poisoned by evil and heartless Chinese is not unlike past visions of European explorers’ run-ins with headhunting Pacific islanders or primitive African tribes. With unfailing consistency, it continues to be through the supposedly superior Western European—technologically advanced, socially liberated and fair—through whose eyes the rest of the world—too often poor, primitive and dark—is seen.

In a global economy in which labor markets know few borders, China has become an easy scapegoat for media populists such as Lou Dobbs, who are looking to win disgruntled viewers seeking an outlet to vent their anger against the shifting realities of outsourcing and globalization. Politicians, also looking for a subject upon which to unite a large voter demographic, will leap at the opportunity to speak out against a common enemy. Conservative news media fan the flames. The WorldNetDaily, who earlier this year ran the headline “China products choke, burn, drown, drop, trap Americans”, lists a multitude of Chinese-made products that have been found to have defects, performing an in-depth “investigation” that reads more like conspiracy theorizing than serious journalism. Though an extreme example, it nonetheless illustrates the underlining fear of and contempt for the “other” that drives much current China-versus-the-West sentiment.

Some might argue that the role of the media is not to provide a balanced, human perspective on other countries but simply to publish what people care about or want to read, one-sided sinophobia included. Balancing the traditional duties of journalism against the profit motive of commercial media has lingered consistently as a major debate within the industry. Still others argue that journalism, produced not by objective machines but real, human reporters—each with their own set of beliefs, experiences, and motivations—will always be inherently slanted.

But in a century in which China is steadily re-emerging as a global power, shouldn’t Western media—as one of the most powerful arbiters of what people know and debate—not be responsible for providing people with as fully informed and well-balanced a picture of China as possible?

In recent years, it must be noted, such fixed, non-constructive portrayal has begun to change. Media bureaus are beginning to look beyond the obvious headlines in order to offer a more nuanced, less polarized perspective on China. In Hollywood, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” a comedy about two refreshingly “normal,” pop-culture-literate Asian Americans, and “Shanghai Kiss,” which features New York-born Ken Leung as the lead romantically involved with a Caucasian woman, are notable examples of mainstream films that humanize Chinese and/or Asians, rather than continuing to exoticize them.

Increasingly, the Internet has offered average citizens the opportunity to report their own news, sharing their perspectives with a global audience. “Sexy Beijing,” an online TV show (www.sexybeijing.tv), features a young host named “Su Fei” (American Anna Sophie Loewenberg) who conducts street interviews, in Mandarin, in the country’s capital, touching on issues ranging from dating to youth culture and presenting a much more personable peek at China than most traditional-media outlets. (The show, which is in Mandarin but subtitled in English, is watched both inside and outside China.)

Such “new media,” including blogs, podcasts and social-networking sites, cater to a wider array of interests and provides a broader perspective on China than does traditional media. And unvetted and haphazard as locating information on the internet might be, blogs are becoming a favored source for information about China outside of mass media.

Still, considerable work remains to be done if the barriers of ignorance and distrust, which lie at the heart of much conflict, international or otherwise, are to be broken down. An American colleague once told me a disheartening story of a discussion she had with a Las Vegas taxi driver regarding her then-impending move to China.

“It’s a good thing you’re getting a head start,” he warned her. “Because our grandchildren will probably [have to] speak Chinese as their first language.”

Such notions of Chinese imperial aggression, not unusual to many casual observers in the West, show an utter ignorance to thousands of years of foreign history. Thankfully, there are some people actively seeking a more realistic, first-hand understanding of China, whether through turning to alternate sources beneath the mainstream, Chinese media first-hand or, perhaps best of all, traveling in person to the Middle Kingdom.

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