Fear Affect as Imperialist Practice in Media Representations of China

Amy Mungur

The ordinary American has never met the ordinary
Chinese. But he dislikes him to his bones.

-Misunderstanding China (CBS News Special, 1972)

In January 2010, Social Education dedicated its issue to teaching about China. The purpose of this issue – the first since 1985 focused entirely on China (p. 7)1 – called for teachers to move past “outdated assumptions; encourage further study
about this important, changing, vast and varied nation; and provide an improved education for students.” The editors’ call for challenging outdated assumptions and Cold War stereotypes intrigued me, and I eagerly read through the issue. With just
over 10 years since that issue of Social Education, we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic; a pandemic that has resulted in “racialized fear [manifested] in public discourse” (Dillard, 2020).

Fear tropes surrounding China/Chinese people, and by extension Asian Americans, are historically entrenched, dating back to 19th century immigration and Chinese exclusion. Media discourse has been especially prominent in how these narratives pervade, as content-based resources, i.e. the textbook, often focus on Ancient China and Communist China, with little if any, historicizing in between. In the mid-19th century.

Junk science about people from Asia was used to justify laws leading to exclusion and exploitation of Asian immigrations. It solidified fear and phobia against Chinese people. The “yellow peril” narrative was born. It’s a racist term that plays on the idea that Asian people would disrupt or harm Westerners’ way of life (Dillard, 2020).

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, such racist tropes have resurfaced and pervaded media discourse. Agarwal-Rangath (2013) calls on social studies teachers to connect the past to the present. She notes that “by working to make explicit connections between the past and the present, we provide students with opportunities to see how our society systematically continues to benefit some,
while hurting others” (p. 100). Using the Citizens against Government Waste (CAGW) advertisement, The Chinese Professor (2010), this article examines the affect of fear as an imperialist practice, and suggests pedagogical strategies for disrupting
racialized and imperialized narratives found in both curricular and media resources.

Affecting Fear as Imperialist Practice

Cold war stereotype: I situate this analysis within Masalski and Levy’s (2010) challenge to move past outdated assumptions and Cold War stereotypes (p. 7). The Cold War necessarily draws on affects of fear and paranoia. Using Masalski and Levy’s (2010) “Cold war stereotype” to understand fear as imperialist practice relies heavily on images of China produced in China during the Cold War, but used frequently in contemporary media and curriculum representations of China in the United States. These images include, but are not limited to propaganda posters, “Cult of Mao” images, Red Guards, etc. As noted in the previous section, in the 19th century, “yellow peril warned of Asiatics racially weakening the national body and justified the exclusion of Asian immigrants” (Leong, 2005, p. 129). During the Cold War, “yellow peril” resurfaced to infuse feelings of fear and concern over the communist threat to democracy and freedom. Today, we see similar acts directed at
Asian Americans (see Cho, 2020; Hong, 2020; Tavernise & Oppel, Jr., 2020); or in reference to COVID-19 by right-wing media outlets as the “Wuhan virus” (see Gearan, 2020; Li, 2020), with the U.S. president himself serving to “[stoke] xenophobic panic in a time of crisis” (Lieu, 2020) doubling down with his continued use of “Chinese
virus.” For the purposes of the analysis in this article, here the Cold War stereotype replaces yellow peril (or renames it) through an emphasis of Maoist, and Cold War ideology for explaining and understanding contemporary China to Western,
democratic audiences, specifically, the United States.

Imperialism: Imperialism can be broadly defined as an act of exerting rule or authority over another. More specifically, however, imperialism is about power, and the means through which one entity names, classifies, categorizes, and studies another. Historically, imperialism has worked to extend categories and classifications named during the period of empire, “directed at extending the
dominion of Europe around the globe” (Willinsky, P. 10). These classifications have extended beyond empire. As such, imperialism has become a means through which to see the world; a world dependent upon unequal binaries: East/West; primitive/civilized; irrational/rational.

Said (1978) Orientalism articulates the unequal relationship between the East and the West as a relationship of power. The Westerner exerts this power in the ways in which he shapes and frames the East through Western representation. The “Oriental” does not speak for themselves. Rather, they are described, written about, and “Orientalized” (p. 5) through Western observations. Thus, Orientalism is

Premised upon exteriority, that is on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar, makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the
(pp. 20-21)

In the United States, orientalist thinking is rooted in the history of United States immigration. European immigrants, who imagined the East as “more decadent, exotic, and immoral” (Leong, 2005, p. 7) carried with them these attitudes and ideas of the East.

The United States looked at the East (China) as a manifest destiny (Tchen, 1999; Leong, 2005), which Tchen (1999) explained was “not only a colonizing vision of the frontier, but also an Occidentalist view of extending European American Protestant civilization influenced by European ideas” (p. xvi). The East was a place to impose, through missionary projects especially, Western and Christian “civilization.” The binaries of civilized/primitive became a way of seeing not only the Chinese in China, but also Chinese immigrants in the United States. Additionally, in the United States, “measuring oneself against the exoticized and the alien became a means toward
stabilizing, and destabilizing, a sense of belonging and normalcy with a sense of freedom and individuality” (p. xx). We can draw parallels to contemporary media discourse, and by examining representational practices we can make connections
to the past explicit (Agarwal-Rangath, 2013), revealing the ways in which imperialist thinking entrenches narratives of a rational and benevolent U.S. to an irrational and devious China.

Fear affect and its commercial appeal: What does a fear affect mean, and what does it do? According to Massumi (2010), fear is “the anticipatory reality in the present of a threatening future” (p. 54), and this perceived future threat is manifested based on past future threats. Applying Massumi’s postulation to the study of China suggests that because in the past China was a potential threat (“yellow peril,” Cold War,
communist, threat to democracy), there is an anticipation of a potential threat in the future. Though there are several examples of more contemporary applications of this, including a recent Biden campaign advertisement2, (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmieUrXwKCc&feature=emb_logo) I often use Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) advertisement, The Chinese Professor (2010)3, which provides a robust visual and narrative example of fear affect, as well as offers points of historical inquiry. The Chinese Professor (2010) forefronts the issue of government spending and projects what future we in the United States will realize, if, by 2030, the spending does not stop. The final scene of the commercial illustrates both the fear affect that Massumi (2010) theorizes, as well as the Cold War stereotype – “Of course we owned most of their debt, so now they work for us.” This is followed by a voice over narration: “You can change the future. You have to!”

To affect fear in advertising is not new. Identified as fear appeals, in advertising they
involve “some kind of threat of what may happen if one does not buy the product” (Harris, 2009, p. 115). All advertising is intent on selling something. Whether it is a commercial product, politician, or ideology, advertising is meant to be persuasive. Research on the ethicality of using fear appeals has produced mixed results, but some studies illustrate the drawbacks to such an approach, primarily the loss of “credibility of advertisers” and the stirring up of “unnecessary fears and worries among audience members” (LaTour, et. al., 1996, p. 60). Despite these concerns, however, fear appeals are used regularly because they appear to work. Hyman and Tansey (1990) illustrated in their empirical study that viewers remember advertisements that use fear far more than in advertisements that employ humor, warmth, or other emotional appeals (in LaTour et al., 1996, p. 60).

In 1986, CAGW also launched an advertisement, The Deficit Trials 2017 AD. This
advertisement depicted an adolescent boy questioning his witness about the $2 trillion debt the United States faced in 1986. The witness asked the boy, “Will you ever be able to forgive us?” (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTSQozWP-rM) This is followed immediately by voice-over narration: “No one really knows what another generation of unchecked federal deficits will bring. But we know this much, you can change the future.” The projected fear in these advertisements is actually
quite different, though in both cases, many networks refused to air them because they were too controversial. The fear in 1986 was projected on the debt itself. In the 2010 advertisement, the fear is storied into a narrative of a failing nation, the
United States, and as a result of stimulus and spending, this “great nation” sold itself to another country, China. (taken from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/postpolitics/wp/2012/10/22/ad-watch-chinese-professor-going-back-onthe-air/)

When met with criticism over the representations in this commercial, the producer
responded, “This ad is about America, it’s not about China” (in Smith, 2010). While this is certainly “about [the United States],” I have to wonder how our historical relationship with, and assumptions about China impact this projection of our future
relationship with China. Vukovich (2010) argues that the “use of China as something already known and ready-to-hand saves time” (p. 156). When we consider how representations, in this case, The Chinese Professor, use language and imagery intent
on elevating a narrative of U.S. exceptionalism whereby democracy is threated by Maoist autocracy, we can see how fear is used to exert power over the other, i.e. imperialism.

Challenging the Narratives

I regularly use the Chinese Professor (2010) in my courses to prompt intentional discussions Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) about historical marginalization/racialization of Chinese people, and more contemporary
discriminatory practices against Asian Americans. In this lesson, students complete a graphic organizer to record responses to the following questions:

What did you see?

What did you hear?

What did you learn?

What do you now know [from watching this]?

The overall aim is to engage in meaningful examination into our own assumptions about belonging, otherness, inclusion, and exclusion.

Students are exposed to not only curricular representations, but also to representations that pervade popular media in what Kellner and Share (2007) argue, “help construct our images and understanding of the world” (in Sensoy, 2010, p. 40). The Chinese Professor (2010) is so compelling for critique because of the layers of text, its intertextuality. What an intertextual analysis does for a representation like this one is to illuminate how the visual and text-based narrative work together to present a future through what is “known” about the past. As a multiple discursive space, this advertisement speaks to the audience through image, sound, spoken narrative, and the written narrative to support the spoken narrative (subtitles). It is important to point out that this commercial was also reformatted for the 2012
election in support of Republican nominee candidate, Ron Paul. Despite the clearly partisan leanings, this commercial is useful in that it articulates layer upon layer of fear and paranoia through similar historical images, and rhetoric, used in the classroom to teach about China.

What do we see? Visually, this commercial is layered with text – both in English and in Chinese – and with images. In the first full frame of the commercial, the audience (viewer) gets a panoramic view of the professor’s lecture hall (Figure 1)

Figure 1:

Giving the appearance of hovering over the floor is 全球经济学, Mandarin for Global/World Economics. In English, the audience is “told” through script that it is Beijing, China in 2030 A.D.

Adorning the walls of the lecture all are three images – the famous portrait of Mao Zedong, and two propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution.

As the commercial progresses and the professor gives his lecture, images fade in and out behind him. These images are intended to represent the United States – the Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, and the American flag. While he speaks, a student
of his lecture expands an image on his tablet of a Wall Street sign (Figure 2).

As the professor says, “Of course, we owned most of their debt,” the image of the White House is covered by the Chinese National flag (Figure 3), the White House visible but fading. At this point the professor laughs, his expression somewhat
maniacal, and says, “so now they work for us.” The students in his lecture find this very amusing, and laugh at his comment.

Figure 3:

What do we hear? The space occupied through sound in this commercial is very
significant. In most commercials, aired under the assumption that the particular audience is English proficient, a viewer should be able to close their eyes and listen to the narrative, without the disruptions of the visual. At the start of this
commercial, the audience (listener) hears a waspy gong-like sound, and then the sound of footsteps. The professor speaks in Mandarin throughout the one minute and two second space. Woven throughout his speech is the attempted sound of
wind, and the Chinese bowed instrument zhonghu (中胡). Twice, the audience hears sounds of laughter– a singular laugh by the professor, and then a reasonably louder set of laughs by a group of people [students]. The advertisement’s concluding
statement is a voice-over narration, in English, reminding us, “You can change the future. You have to. Join Citizens Against Government Waste to stop the spending that is bankrupting America.”

Typically, I show this commercial twice. The second time, I have them just listen. Students at times struggle with this because, having watched it once, they “don’t understand Chinese [language].” This is intentionally on my part, because the sounds
that circulate in this commercial – the gong, the violin, blowing wind – evoke imagery that can be, quite problematically described as “typically Chinese.”

Engaging Students in Visual/Textual Analysis

The Chinese Professor (2010) occupies multiple discursive spaces, the discourse
represented through the written/spoken text, and the discourse represented through visual text. The narrative space is complicated because of the spoken Chinese, and then translated, presumably correctly, into English. When CAGW endorsed Ron
Paul in 2012 and reformatted the commercial, the subtitles were altered slightly and some images were added, but the Mandarin remained the same.
When I use these two versions with students, they often notice the changes in the images – more direct at pointing out the other Republican nominee’s shortcomings, specifically Governor Rick Perry.

Text (the narrative: The text is significant, but it is with the juxtaposition of the images that pervade the space of this commercial that provide analytical entry points into how the Cold War stereotype is represented and how fear is used a
means to exert control over another. Fairclough (2003) explains that “discourses not only represent the world as it is (or rather seen to be), they are also projective, imaginaries, representing possible worlds which are different from the actual world,
and tied in to projects to change the world in particular directions” (p. 124). The narratives and visuals are working together to (re)present a particular version of the United States, one in which is perceived out of fear – from the paranoia and fear
that was present during the Cold War period. The questions used to frame this lesson allow students movement to record their findings on the graphic organizer, while simultaneously being prompted to not only question their assumptions about China
more broadly, but also consider what the implications are of representation like this one to understanding more contemporary issues of discrimination and racism in the United States.

Images (the visual): Images are complex. Meaning made through/by photography (image) is arguably more complicated than narrative text in that it “seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects” (Sontag, 1977, p. 6). The innocence, however, is what makes the
photograph/image aggressive (p. 7), and potentially problematic. Hall (1997) defines photography as a “representational system, using images on lightsensitive paper to communicate photographic meaning about a particular person, event, or scene”
(emphasis added, p. 5). Within this “system” exist objects, which help the audience/viewer derive meaning (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009). Though The
Chinese Professo
r (2010) is not a single photograph, it is systematically representing a
person/persons/events in order to communicate a particular meaning.

Sontag (1977) describes how “the picture may distort, but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what it is in the picture” (p. 5). What this suggests is that a reader/audience member/viewer brings to the photograph (or image) an expectation of something similar to what is being viewed. The images that unfold throughout The Chinese Professor (2010)
suggest that we in the United States expect economic advancement of the Chinese, and to some extent are “okay” with that. However, the political and social thought of the Chinese – implicit in the images of 1960s China, the Communist flag draped
over the White House, and the students captivated by their professor, he himself wearing a traditional Mao suit – remains situated in the Cold War, and thus, a (the) continual threat to democracy. Vukovich (2012) captures this sentiment through
scholarship when he argues, “Nor do the complexities and differences of China fare too much better; it is allowed to be an emergent and rising economy, but not so much an emergent society (to put this more conventionally)” (p. 48, emphasis in original).


While The Chinese Professor (2010) was the object of analysis for this article, it is important to note that the strategies I use with students to interrogate this commercial are applicable across a variety of resources. Coupling The Chinese
(2010) with clips from television shows and/or film trailers provides students with opportunities to analyze similarities and differences
among modes of representation. The aim is for students to begin to see authorship/power in representation, and to use social studies inquiry and
dialogue to challenge the marginalization, discrimination, and racism that often goes
unchecked in the classroom. Because media (and educational) resources often reinforce national narratives – master narratives (Takaki, 1993/2008) that assume belonging for white people, but is questioned for people of color – it is imperative that we employ critical analysis to both historical and contemporary issues so that students can locate “parallels between injustices of today and yesterday” (Agarwal-Rangnath, 2013, p. 101).


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