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Fear in Chinese
October 28, 2010 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - 22 comments

Usually US midterm elections are pretty sleepy affairs. But not this cycle. Bad times mean populists on the soapbox, and this year, their tempers are as high as the national debt. With so many out of work, and the recovery a long way off, incumbents are in trouble and the rhetoric is at tea-party pitch. So an election for the history books.  Of course, more than ever, the internet is the echo chamber of hearts and minds, and where voters go viral.

So it is only fitting that, in this global age, the political ad that will be most remembered in 2010 is in Chinese. And Sci-Fi Chinese at that. At a university of the future, a professor gives his class the intro lecture on the rise and fall of civilization. Greece, Rome, the British Empire, and guess who. Not to be missed. . .

James Fallows, The Atlantic’s China correspondent, calls it “this amazing ad from ‘Citizens Against Government Waste,’ which is the first spot from this campaign season you can imagine people actually remembering a decade from now. ‘I’m not a witch’ might be remembered as a novelty; I think this will be remembered―like ‘Morning in America,’ ‘Willie Horton,’ the ‘Daisy Girl‘ ad from the 1960s, and perhaps even ‘3am Phone Call’―as a notably effective introduction of a new theme. (You don’t have to agree with any of these ads to recognize their power.) Watch, marvel, and learn.

“As a work of persuasion and motivation, this commands admiration for its technique. (I’m being serious.) Although I realize that many Chinese people will take offense at it, mainly the chortling section at the end, for me it passes the test for the proper use of “foreign menace” themes in US discourse. Although the ad is clearly meant to make Americans shudder at the idea of a Chinese-dominated future, at no point does it say that the canny foreigners did anything wrong. It uses them as a spur for us to do better―which, as laid out at length here, is the right way to use foreign comparisons. And the stated argument, even from the triumphalist Chinese professor, is that the Americans erred by turning away from their own values.”

580,000 views on YouTube so far. I’d say that it’s still on the way up, and each viewing represents another impression. If it remains hot, and I think this one has legs, this video will go a long way toward defining future perceptions of China over the long term.

Back in the day, when I was a press guy for the Japanese foreign ministry, Fallows was the only journalist on the Japan beat (back when Japan was #1) who actually understood what was going on. So I figure he’s done the same in China, and I respect his opinion.

But in this day and age, even the most persuasive clip can be turned against its masters, especially when subtitles can be changed so easily on YouTube. Melissa Bell, blogging over at the Washington Post, calls the Chinese Professor ad the “new Hitler meme,” not because the communist professor is particularly fascist, but because that clip from a German documentary about Hitler’s last day in the bunker has been subtitled for a thousand different purposes, with Bush, or Obama, or Steve Jobs in the starring role. A particularly funny version when Hitler finds that he’s lost his YouTube account. . . She invites us all to create our own versions of Chinese Professor.

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