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  • In a Future Tense:Immigration Law, Counterfactual Histories, and Chinese Invasion Fiction
  • Edlie L. Wong (bio)

During the final weeks of the November 2010 elections, in which Republican candidates and the Tea Party ousted long-term Democrats to regain the House majority, a slick, 60-second television advertisement entitled “Chinese Professor” dramatizing the perils of the US national debt appeared on national television. It aired on CNN, FoxNews, AMC, and CNBC and also on local broadcast stations in states with key gubernatorial and senate races, including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. A few major networks, including ABC, A&E, and the History Channel, declined to air the advertisement, claiming it to be too controversial. It ran again in January and March 2011 and in the month before the 2012 presidential election. Since its original broadcast, “Chinese Professor” has become the subject of much heated debate, praise, and parody, receiving over 2.6 million hits on YouTube alone.

The commercial opens in the year 2030 AD in Beijing, China. A crowded high-tech lecture hall decorated with an image of Mao Zedong and other communist iconography comes into focus. The camera zooms in on an illuminated platform, recalling the hallucinatory opening sequence from the film Manchurian Candidate (1962) and its Cold War fears of communist conspiracy.1 Footsteps reverberate sharply down a hall, introducing the protagonist, a Chinese professor. “Why do great nations fall?” he queries his young audience in Mandarin with English subtitles. Punctuating his words with emphatic gestures, the Chinese professor begins his lesson in future history. A massive screen whirrs to life, flashing images of the once great empires of the world. “The Ancient Greeks . . . the [End Page 511] Roman Empire . . . the British Empire . . . and the United States of America,” he intones. A low-angle shot-reverse-shot sequence positions the viewer among the students, as the camera shifts from their attentive gazes to tightly cropped close-ups of the professor’s authoritative talking head: “They all made the same mistakes: turning their back on the principles that made them great. America tried to spend and tax itself out of a great recession. Enormous so-called stimulus spending, massive changes to health care, government takeovers of private industries, and crushing debt. Of course, we owned most of their debt . . . [professor’s laughter] so now they work for us” (Citizens). Derisive laughter greets the punch line of this inside joke, registering the disjunctive temporality of the advertisement’s speculative premise: that America’s economic destruction will become a well-known fact of Chinese history. The camera slowly pulls back as a Chinese flag comes into view. “You can change the future,” declares a male voice-over in English, “You have to. Join Citizens Against Government Waste to stop the spending that is bankrupting America.”

The nation’s largest taxpayer watchdog group, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), hired veteran Republican adman Larry McCarthy to produce the commercial. “Chinese Professor” was an homage and sequel to an earlier CAGW political advertisement directed by Ridley Scott, the acclaimed science fiction auteur (Smith). Scott first popularized the aesthetics of cinematic dystopia in Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), a cyberpunk masterpiece merging late-capitalist fears of Asiatic imperialism with the technological alienation of the individual (Sohn 8). Like its sequel, Scott’s 1986 commercial, “The Deficit Trials” is set in the failed future of 2017 AD that has been destroyed by deficit spending during the Reagan era.2

Nearly a quarter of a century later, CAGW returned to the landscape of US dystopia with “Chinese Professor,” which exploits China—one of the so-called Asian Tigers—as a figure for the contradictions, perils, and disjunctive temporalities of US globalization and economic neoliberalism. American viewers witness a chilling exposition on our failed national future and economic enslavement to China, currently the largest single holder of US government debt. However, the advertisement’s artifice of futurity—its sleek metallic surfaces and cutting-edge technologies—belies a far older discursive history. Its vision of racial dystopia mines the racialized labor and immigration histories of the US and the varied cultural materials forming the longstanding tradition of American “Yellow Peril.” Predicated upon the economic and military dangers...


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pp. 511-535
Launched on MUSE
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