China's Rise a Game- Changer for Asian Image

As long as Japan was the leading Asian power, the Asian image in America was relegated to that of sidekick. Partly because of its unconditional surrender in WWII, partly because of its national desire to stay in Uncle Sam’s shadow as well as its nuclear umbrella, Japan just didn’t cast enough of a shadow in the American consciousness to force proper treatment in the nuances of dignity, respect and ego.

That’s changing quickly now that China has replaced Japan not only as Asia’s biggest economy but as its fastest-growing market for U.S. exports. China has never been seen as acquiescing to the American will either politically or culturally. Nor has it ever been defeated in a full-scale war (though the small, isolated skirmishes involving the Boxers at the end of the 19th century did falsely create the impression of yet another humiliating national defeat). And so as long as it was seen as a second-rate economy, corporate America had no reason to care about the Chinese or Asian image in the media it supported with paid advertising or through the mouths of politicians it helped elect with campaign contributions.

Disrespectful depictions of Chinese, and by association Asians in general, became an American media fixture because it pandered to blue-collar workers who felt their jobs were threatened by Chinese imports. Throughout the nineties and the aughts demagogues ranted about how China was stealing U.S. jobs in terms only marginally less inflammatory than those used by the Kearneyites back in the nineteenth century to justify the Chinese Exclusion Act. Movies routinely showed American heroes wiping out masses of Chinese soldiers or gangsters, then getting the Chinese girl to boot. Journalists didn’t need to worry that their depictions of China’s political system were one-sided or even inaccurate, as long as they fed into the prevailing view that China had no respect for human rights and used virtual slave labor to undermine American jobs.

What a difference a few trillion dollars of GDP and foreign exchange reserves make!

Now that China has surpassed Japan as the world’s number two economy with a $6 trillion economy and has shot past the U.S. as the world’s leading car market with projected sales of over 20 million cars in 2011 (to the roughly 12 million projected for the U.S.), American depictions of Chinese have suddenly become accountable to corporations like GM, Boeing, IBM, Microsoft, GE and Westinghouse who stand to lose tens of billions of sales if China’s sentiment sours on American attitudes.

It isn’t just the impact on the sales of U.S. cars, planes, software, sophisticated IT and financial services and nuclear power plants. It’s China’s $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves than can be used to boost the interest rates the U.S. must pay to borrow money to fund the national debt and its ability to put the squeeze on U.S. green tech firms by withholding the rare-earth metals over which it has a virtual monopoly.

China’s ascendance has begun to shift the Asian image from compliant sidekick to assertive partner. You can see this, for example, in the recent Green Hornet movie in which Jay Chou plays a Kato who’s much more of an equal than the Kato played by Bruce Lee back in the late 1960s. In 2012 it’s the Chinese who build the arks that save a few thousand lucky humans as the world crumbles. You can also see the shift in the more respectful tones with which financial journalists talk about China and its impact on global markets on networks like CNBC, Bloomberg and Fox Business News. Instead of interviewing the CEOs of companies looking to hawk cheap goods, most of the Chinese being interviewed these days are financiers, investment managers and CEO’s of tech firms. They aren’t begging Americans to buy their goods. Instead they’re telling Americans what they will do to change leading economic indicators like global stock and commodity prices.

The shift is trickling down to Joe and Jane Asian American. It’s pretty rare these days to see anything on TV or in the movies that are offensive enough to warrant complaints. You have to tune into wingnut radio for that — and even those stations have cooled the offensive rhetoric because they don’t want to lose advertisers who are increasingly anxious not to anger Chinese. Perhaps as a result of such media changes, I am also seeing a noticeable shift in the attitudes of average non-Asian Americans in the way they address me or talk about Asian people and cultures.

So whatever reservations I may have about specific instances of China’s policies, as long as so many Americans see China as a kind of the macro avatar for Asian people, I am delighted by China’s growing prosperity and its willingness to express its views and interests with the same degree of assertiveness I use in my own personal dealings.