Was the racist Chinese Super Bowl ad considered racist in China?

A GOP senatorial candidate in Michigan, Pete Hoekstra, ran a Super Bowl advertisement featuring an Asian woman speaking broken English and thanking Hoekstra’s opponent, Debbie Stabenow, for her free-spending ways. The ad hit a nerve in America, angering many for its portrayal of an Asian-American woman speaking broken English. The Michigan chapter of the Asian ...

A GOP senatorial candidate in Michigan, Pete Hoekstra, ran a Super Bowl advertisement featuring an Asian woman speaking broken English and thanking Hoekstra's opponent, Debbie Stabenow, for her free-spending ways. The ad hit a nerve in America, angering many for its portrayal of an Asian-American woman speaking broken English. The Michigan chapter of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote group said it was "deeply disappointed" by the ad, and political commentators criticized it across the board. The 'blame China' ad is becoming a fixture in American political campaigns;  see for example the 'xiexie Mr. Gibbs', or the 'Chinese professor.'

While the woman in the Super Bowl ad wears a hat more often associated with Vietnam, the ad's website, www.debbiespenditnow.com, makes it clear that it is targeting China: Chinese coins, fans, an airplane, and the phrase "The Great Wall of Debt"  decorate the site.

This ad, however, received almost no attention in China. There is scant chatter of it on Sina Weibo or Tencent Weibo, the two most popular Twitter-like microblogging services. The NFL, lacking the popularity that Yao Ming brought to the NBA, is rarely watched in China anyway, and the ads this year that drew any attention were mostly car commercials.

A GOP senatorial candidate in Michigan, Pete Hoekstra, ran a Super Bowl advertisement featuring an Asian woman speaking broken English and thanking Hoekstra’s opponent, Debbie Stabenow, for her free-spending ways. The ad hit a nerve in America, angering many for its portrayal of an Asian-American woman speaking broken English. The Michigan chapter of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote group said it was "deeply disappointed" by the ad, and political commentators criticized it across the board. The ‘blame China’ ad is becoming a fixture in American political campaigns;  see for example the ‘xiexie Mr. Gibbs‘, or the ‘Chinese professor.’

While the woman in the Super Bowl ad wears a hat more often associated with Vietnam, the ad’s website, http://www.debbiespenditnow.com, makes it clear that it is targeting China: Chinese coins, fans, an airplane, and the phrase "The Great Wall of Debt"  decorate the site.

This ad, however, received almost no attention in China. There is scant chatter of it on Sina Weibo or Tencent Weibo, the two most popular Twitter-like microblogging services. The NFL, lacking the popularity that Yao Ming brought to the NBA, is rarely watched in China anyway, and the ads this year that drew any attention were mostly car commercials.

Only a handful of Twitter users wrote about it in simplified Mandarin (the way Chinese is written in Mainland China, unlike the traditional characters which the Debbiespenditnow website inexplicably employs). One who did so is a software engineer working in the Netherlands who tweets under the name lihlii.  "I don’t think it’s racist," he said in a phone interview. "It’s about America losing jobs."

Broadly speaking, there is a whole different idea of political correctness in China. Asking how much someone makes a month within the first minute of meeting them doesn’t raise eyebrows in China, and neither, generally speaking, do blanket racial statements, like commenting on the perceived cleverness of the Jews.  On the other hand, questioning Hu Jintao’s ability to govern makes for awkward cocktail party chatter.

Those who did object to the ad generally did so in an American context. Michael Anti, a popular blogger who has lived in the U.S. as a Nieman Fellow, wrote on Twitter:

"I think the problem with the ad is that it’s racist, not anti-Chinese. As a Chinese I should be amused by this ad, because it seems more like Southeast Asia. But Chinese in America are easily enraged by that sort of prejudicial defamation of the image of a Chinese woman. Also, her English is not the Chinglish of a Mainland Chinese."

So what Super Bowl ads are controversial in China? Last year Groupon ran one featuring actor Timothy Hutton saying: "The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry." This ruffled feathers for contravening  state policy and conventional wisdom that Han Chinese are helping Tibet (and for its inaccuracy: fish curry is probably eaten more in Vermont than Tibet). Groupon employees at the time said that the advertisement complicated the company’s expansion plans into China, and they eventually pulled the advertisement.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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