The Phenomenal 'Chinese Professor' Ad

Via Ben Smith of Politico, 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.

CAGW, a descendant of J. Peter Grace's 1980s-era anti-wasteful spending commission, is in principle bipartisan, though in this election its campaign about the menace of "stimulus spending" has an obvious partisan tilt. And if you know anything about the Chinese economy, the actual analytical content here is hilariously wrong. The ad has the Chinese official saying that America collapsed because, in the midst of a recession, it relied on (a) government stimulus spending, (b) big changes in its health care systems, and (c) public intervention in major industries -- all of which of course, have been crucial parts of China's (successful) anti-recession policy.

But never mind! 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.

In case you're wondering, the banner that appears briefly behind the speaker says "全球经济学," or "Global Economics." I could be wrong, but something about the look of the students -- haircuts, teeth -- makes me doubt that this was actually filmed in China. [Update: Ahah! Suspicions justified! They are DC-area college students. Their skin and teeth are different from what you'd see in a big Chinese college lecture hall. Though perhaps in 2030...] The main point is, this is the ad of the cycle so far. Now, if these skills could only be applied to helping the public understand real budget and economic tradeoffs once the election is over.

Also: a "reply" from Campus Progress, with the same Chinese narration but somewhat different English subtitles.

: Someone who knows about the Chinese economy writes with this caveat:

>>Very interesting advert but I feel uncomfortable praising the technique over the fundamental lack of truth in the message. Yes, skill is admirable but when someone uses a skill in a harmful way - say to mislead or misinform, I can't muster praise for it. There have been masterful propagandists in our past that have achieved terrible outcomes - I'm thinking Nazi Germany for example.

As you point out, the message of this ad, that some future China surpassed America by not using stimulus spending intentionally misleads the viewer. China has successfully out-stimulused (sp?) us and proved that it works.<<
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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