February 8th, 2012
01:50 PM ET

Opinion: The price of 'Yellow Peril'

Editor's Note: Jeff Yang writes the column Tao Jones  for the Wall Street Journal Online,  is a regular contributor to WNYC radio, blogging for "The Brian Lehrer Show", and appears weekly on "The Takeaway".  He formerly wrote the  "Asian Pop" column for the San Francisco Chronicle and  was founder and publisher of A magazine.  He tweets @originalspin.

By Jeff Yang, Special to CNN

“Sir: I am a Chinaman, a republican, and a lover of free institutions; am much attached to the principles of the government of the United States ... The effect of your late message has been … to prejudice the public mind against my people, to enable those who wait the opportunity to hunt them down."

These were the opening lines of an open letter written by Chinese restaurant owner Norman Asing to California Governor John Bigler, who, in 1852, had demonstrated his intention to ride nativist sentiment to re-election by delivering a scabrous, xenophobic speech before the state legislature.

In his "special message," he called the Chinese a "peculiar people" who were stealing the nation's treasure and shipping it back to China, while taking jobs and livelihood away from white Americans, and demanded the legislature enact "extraordinary measures" to address their threat.

Fearing that the speech would tip anti-Chinese tensions over into violence, Asing, one of San Francisco Chinatown's most prominent leaders, sent his letter to The Daily Alta California newspaper, which published it without comment.

Bigler ignored it.

But Asing proved all too right: encouraged by the continued drumbeating of Governor Bigler and other nativists, the next two decades would see fear and anxiety over the "Asiatic hordes" rise to a deadly pitch, culminating in one of the most horrifying incidents of mass violence in California history.

On October 24, 1871, Los Angeles's Chinatown was stormed by a mob of over 500 whites, who beat, robbed and murdered its residents in a night-long orgy of hatred.

Not a single Chinatown building escaped being looted and trashed, and nearly every resident was assaulted, robbed or worse.

Despite that tragedy, a 160 years later, politicians of both parties have chosen to embrace the “Bigler” formula, framing their campaigns for office not as a race between parties or leaders, but as a clash of civilizations, suggesting that their opponents are the willing or unwitting tools of nefarious interests in the Far East.

Super Bowl ads offer two views of national anxieties

Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, is the latest and most egregious of the Modern Day Biglers, having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an ad casting Stabenow as an enabler of China's creeping domination over the United States

The advertisement, which aired across all of Michigan during Sunday’s Super Bowl, features an Asian-American actress in a yellow outfit and conical straw hat, bicycling through a rice paddy.

In broken English, she proceeds to praise Debbie “SpendItNow” for her splurging ways: “Thank you Michigan Senator Debbie Spenditnow! Debbie spend so much American money. You borrow more and more – from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you Debbie Spenditnow!”

The ad’s cartoon caricature has been broadly condemned as racially offensive, even by some of Hoekstra’s Republican colleagues.

But relatively few people are questioning the ad’s bigger context: That China is a zero-sum threat to the U.S., rubbing its hands with diabolical glee at the thought of American collapse.

As David Catanese wrote in Politico, “The message of the ad — that China is a continuing threat … isn’t as much of an issue as the fact that Hoekstra’s camp seized on stereotypes to drive home its point.”

In fact, the casual invocation of China as America’s zero-sum nemesis and existential rival has become increasingly common in today’s political conversation.

In 2010 and 2011, dozens of advertisements from politicians and special interest groups have framed China as a looming, leering enemy.

Hoekstra’s Republican colleague of Nevada, Rep. Mark Amodei, ran ads in which a Chinese news anchor recounted a chain of future events that began with the vote to raise the debt ceiling and ended with Chinese tanks rolling through Washington.

Running for congress in West Virginia, Republican Spike Maynard accused his opponent, Nick Rahall, of voting to send money to Chinese wind turbine manufacturers, with the flag of China flashing in the foreground.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ran ads slamming Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, as “fighting for jobs…in China!”

Beating back a challenge from former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer aired commercials accusing her of outsourcing thousands of jobs to “Shanghai instead of San Jose,” and “proudly stamping her products ‘Made in China.'”

And the anti-spending group Citizens Against Government Waste ran a notorious ad that featured an oily Beijing academic from the year 2030 spurring his class to a malicious fit of laughter over America’s downfall.

All of these ads used horror-movie audio cues and triumphant Red Communist imagery to play up the China threat.

But many of them – like Hoekstra’s ad – blurred the line between Chinese and Asian-Americans, by casting actors or extras who are obviously U.S.-born or raised to play the parts of nefarious Chinese nationals.

Former Rep. Zack Space went one step further, running ads attacking his GOP rival Robert Gibbs for supporting free trade with China that climaxed on an image apparently shot during the San Francisco Chinatown Lunar New Year parade: As dragons are dancing in the foreground, English-language signs are clearly visible in the rear.

The sloppy (or in some cases, perhaps intentional) conflation of “China” and “Chinese Americans” is tremendously dangerous, redirecting these Yellow Peril messages at a target that’s decidedly closer to home.

Nor is it just Americans of Chinese ancestry who are at risk: History is full of examples of ethnic misidentifications that have produced fatal consequences. The most famous case is that of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American murdered 30 years ago this year in Hoekstra’s home state of Michigan, by unemployed autoworkers seeking revenge against “the Japanese.”

Based on evidence from Republican debates, the use of China as a convenient enemy is likely to intensify as the field thins.

At the Bloomberg/Washington Post debate before his New Hampshire primary victory, Mitt Romney – the GOP’s probable standard-bearer– thundered that President Obama and other American leaders were being “played like a fiddle by the Chinese. And the Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank, taking our currency and taking our jobs and taking a lot of our future.”

If that sounds oddly similar to John Bigler’s message to the 1852 legislature, that is because it is essentially the same.

And for the ethically bankrupt but politically ambitious, Bigler’s success might well serve as a role model. His stance toward the Chinese caused his popularity to skyrocket, winning him a second term by a large margin, and even triggering a campaign to name what we now call Lake Tahoe "Lake Bigler."

Later, he was named U.S. ambassador to Chile, and then U.S. commissioner for the Central Pacific Railroad (ironically, overseeing the greatest achievement of the so-called “coolies” he so despised.)

But as we now know, the short-term political gain Bigler experienced came at an awful price.

A century and a half after one of the darkest stains on the great American tapestry, Rep. Pete Hoekstra and others who have proven so eager to play the “China card” might want to read a little history, and heed the long-lost warnings of Norman Asing.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Yang.

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Filed under: Asian in America • Discrimination • History • Politics • Race • What we think
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. Kpop

    Jeff Yang continue the good work.

    February 14, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  2. wr

    These criticisms are ludicrous. The ad is in no way directed against Asian-AMERICANS.

    February 14, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Kenny

    One day, when the kettle gets hot and over-boiled, all hell will break loose. America will see the roughest and toughest of barbaric groups that will put the kkk and all white supremacy groups to shame.

    February 14, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. multi-racial rainbow

    Thanks for this article. The amount of discrimination the Chinese experienced in America is not spoken of enough. Maybe someone should bring Pete Hoekstra up to speed on the history of this country since he is a recent immigrant himself. Maybe someone should verify that he and his parents came here legally. Seems a bit silly to want to run the country when you are not aware of the history. What a mindless bigot.

    February 13, 2012 at 1:48 am | Report abuse |
  5. shugee

    How is this any different than Hitler using the Jews as scapegoats for his political gain.This is civilization at it's lowest ,tribal form.Anyone supporting these commercials has lost their very soul. To all you asian americans out there, I apologize: and please don't think we are all xenophobic bigots.

    February 10, 2012 at 11:50 am | Report abuse |
  6. AsianM

    Hoekstra is trying to take American jobs! He was born in Netherlands! Soon American congress will be run by foreigners! Stop the invasion of people in Netherlands before it's too late USA! USA! USA! Very tongue in cheek here. Good for him. An immigrant making it in America. That's what it's about. But sheesh...your racist video is atrocious, and you should be apologizing for that. Hope you lose!


    February 9, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • multi-racial rainbow

      Everything about him is offensive. He should go back home where he can be with his own kind if he has a problem with Chinese or anyone else in the US. I doubt most Americans can even pronounce his last name.

      February 13, 2012 at 1:55 am | Report abuse |
      • Tian Ti

        Ask him if he knows who built the Trans-Continental Highway. Many of my ancestors died working on the railway we are all using each day. White P H guy ( from neanthaland?), next time you ride the Trans- Continental, give some thought about your bigotry.

        February 14, 2012 at 11:02 am | Report abuse |
  7. justasking23

    Thank you for giving voice and opinion to Hoekstra's jarring politics. It's sad and troubling that he would create and run this ad without deep consideration of how it can affect Americans of Asian descent and other cultures. Wouldn't it be more savvy for a politician to unify and strengthen the whole and not divide and conquer? In the meantime, while Mr. Hoekstra plans his next move, I'm more than happy to send support to Senator Stabenow.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
  8. The Woof

    The only thing that needs to be feared is the greed that has gotten us into this position in the first place. The saying "We have met the enemy and it is us." really seems to be true.

    February 9, 2012 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
  9. JOSE0311USMC


    February 9, 2012 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
  10. Yo

    Mister Yang, you clearly do not understand anything about American politics if you think that politicians will stop spreading hatred, just because it may lead to violence. As you said so yourself, "His stance toward the Chinese caused his popularity to skyrocket". Who cares about a couple of deaths along the way?

    These politicians will even invade countries without any reason, just for popularity.

    Contrary to what you think, they KNOW their history : anything for popularity.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:33 am | Report abuse |
  11. Alec

    This latest ad by Pete Hoekstra pales in comparison to his previous stunts.

    On June 22, 2006, Hoekstra made headlines by announcing at a press conference in the Capitol that weapons of mass destruction had been located in Iraq in the form of 500 chemical weapons. A number of other media outlets disputed the claims made by Hoekstra and Rick Santorum regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction, reporting that the claims were disputed by both Pentagon officials, the Duelfer Report, and the intelligence community.

    As of September 17, 2007, some news outlets reported that the Congressional committee Hoekstra had overseen had created "erroneous" and "misleading" reports about Iran's nuclear capabilities. "Among the committee's assertions is that Iran is producing weapons-grade uranium at its facility in the town of Natanz. The IAEA called that "incorrect", noting that weapons-grade uranium is enriched to a level of 90 percent or more. Iran has enriched uranium to 3.5 percent under IAEA monitoring."

    February 9, 2012 at 3:09 am | Report abuse |
  12. s

    We just need to remember Pete Hoekstra at the voting booth and make sure he will never win any election on this land.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • JOSE0311USMC


      February 9, 2012 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
      • Bob

        CHINA IS NOT TO BLAME. IT'S AMERICAN BUSINESS THAT IS OUTSOURCING JOBS! The chinese just take those jobs to feed themselves. They don't care about spiting americans.

        February 13, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
      • Kenny

        While China might 'stole' your job but America has clearly stole mine. The billions of $$ that the U.S. borrowed from China used as bail-outs for our Banks and CEOs, and now you're calling them thieves for stealing your job? Do you call your bank for a thief for giving you a loan that you've applied and signed for it? Another stupid dmb-fk American causing me shame!

        February 14, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Phoenix

      I totally agree w/ S – we make sure Pete Hoekstra will never win any elections on this land.

      February 14, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
  13. newbi

    it has already begun!
    No More Danny Chens,

    February 8, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Report abuse |
  14. R

    It's a shame how people stereotype asians.
    Very well written.

    February 8, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Guppy

    Well written, sir. Great food for thought.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  16. YB

    Very interesting. I wonder if this method will actually work despite the blatant racism. I guess only time will tell. Great piece.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |