Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Black Agenda Report, December 2, 2020.
In recent years, the corporate media has invested significant resources in programming that appeals to younger members of the liberal class who are growing increasingly frustrated by their circumstances in the United States. Movements such as the struggle for immigrant rights, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter have forced media corporations to include themes of “inclusion,” “diversity,” and the growing poverty of millennials on their streaming platforms. Shows such as Lovecraft Country, Shameless, and Dear White People all tap into the economic and social unrest of the current period. Awkwafina is the most well-known artist to emerge from a new drive to promote the Asian American and immigrant experience in the corporate media. Her new program Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, however, is a testament to the powerful interests that media monopolies and their employed artists possess in the racist New Cold War on China spearheaded by the Pentagon.
The relationship between the Pentagon and corporate media is hardly a secret. A large number of media corporations are owned by General Electric, one of the U.S.’ top weapons producers. Recent documents supplied by the Pentagon and the CIA in a FOIA request show that the U.S. military has been directly involved in the production of over 800 movies and 1,000 television programs. Programs such as Jack Ryan overtly promote U.S. interventionism in countries such as Venezuela with help from the CIA. In the last four years of Russiagate, a series of films and television programs have complimented the constant corporate news coverage of the conspiracy to paint Russia as an enemy of the United States.
Perhaps more dangerous is the subtle way that “progressive” programming normalizes U.S. militarism with Cold War politics. Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens provides a case in point. In the show, Awkwafina plays herself—a Chinese American woman in her late twenties navigating the Chinese experience in the U.S. and the economic and social realities of her generation. Many of the characters in the program possess a modicum of charm; that is, if one can stomach the obvious anti-communist references in episodes such as Grandma and Chill. In the season finale, however, the liberal mask comes off and the program morphs into a screed for the U.S.’ New Cold War on China.
The first season ends with Awkafina moving to China after she and her cousin sell the rights of their app, Scrubr, to Chinese investors. The rest of the episode is a stream of racist stereotypes of China that align perfectly with the U.S.’ New Cold War agenda. Chinese tech corporations are portrayed as dependent on Awkwafina’s “American face” to sell products. The popular Chinese app WeChat is featured on the show to comfort American audiences with the propaganda that censorship is rampant in China. Awkwafina’s difficult adjustment to her new home is highlighted with a scene of her eating KFC in Beijing and spending all of her free time with European and American expats. China is cast as a playground for the U.S. and West with few redeeming qualities of its own that are worthy of attention.
In an interview for the New York Daily News last year, Awkwafina heralded the progress of the corporate media in challenging racist stereotypes of Asian-Americans. “I think the industry is moving toward a good spot where Asian people are seen now as people that can do other things,” she said. “I think when you first start out and you’re an artist, you want to be just known as an artist. You don’t want to have to be pigeonholed.” Apparently, these words do not apply to countries such as China facing endless smears from the American empire. Awkwafina’s assistant, Grace, is the prototype of racist stereotypes of Chinese women. She is docile, subservient, and sheltered from the glamourous life offered by the Western world. Awkwafina exposes Grace to heavy partying and helps her obtain a promotion at the tech corporation before being deported back to the U.S. for taking the fall for Grace’s illegal drug use.
One comes out of watching the season finale of Awkwafina is Nora from Queens with the idea that China is a repressive surveillance state incapable of any achievements beyond what is gifted to the country from the U.S. and West. China’s ascendance as a global power is mostly window dressing. Modern apartments are furnished with uncomfortable ameneities. Chinese workers like Grace are nothing more than modern-day slaves working 24-7 to serve Americans. Chinese tech corporations need Awkwafia, a twenty-seven-year-old millennial with no job experience, to succeed in the global market. In a word, China and its people are inferior to the United States’ way of life. American arrogance was quite literally on fully display, not least because the episode was filmed in Taiwan without the permission of the local government.
Awkwafina could have taken a more balanced approach to China by considering the following trends:
- China leads the world in patent applications, with tech giant Huawei filing the most patents per company for the third consecutive year in 2019.
- China leads the world in the production of renewable energy and has committed to becoming a carbon neutral country by 2060. Economists believe that the Chinese market for electric vehicles may render oil production itself obsolete.
- Women’s participation in the workforce has doubled since 1978. Nearly a quarter of all representatives in the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s highest political body, are women.
- Wages in China rose by ten percent from 2018 to 2019.
- On November 23rd of this year, China declared victory in its fight against absolute poverty.
These are just a few achievements which have imbued a remarkable trust among the Chinese people in the capacity of the government in China to address their needs. The Harvard Ash Center surveyed satisfaction with the central government in China and found that nearly 95.5 percent of respondents were “relatively satisfied” or “highly satisfied” with its performance. Contrast this with a recent Gallup poll that revealed just 38 percent of people in the U.S. are satisfied with the performance of the U.S. government. The negation of China’s achievements and the erasure of the U.S.’ woes are a staple of New Cold War racism. Economic insecurity and the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 have made it essential for U.S. political and media elites to emphasize to the masses of Americans that China is in fact to blame for their problems.
That Awkwafina fell into the trap of parroting New Cold War racism should not surprise anyone who understands just who and what the corporate media serves. Huey P. Newton’s statement that he did not expect the white media to create positive Black male images also applies to nations targeted by the U.S. war machine. No amount of representation from oppressed groups and nationalities changes the fact that the corporate media primarily caters to white investors and audiences. Awkwafina in particular focuses attention on the tastes of the white liberal class. Her program Awkwafina is Nora from Queens demonstrates that this class has a large stake in the racist New Cold War on China being pursued in the halls of power in Washington D.C.
Some may view Awkwafina’s venture into the realm of anti-China stereotypes to be inconsequential to the overall geopolitical landscape. Such a posture negates the fact that racism toward Asian Americans has intensified in the U.S. in conjunction with a massive anti-China propaganda campaign led by the corporate media from the very outset of China’s battle with COVID-19 in Wuhan. New Cold War stereotypes are racist in character and help justify hostile U.S. policies toward China. Corporate media has long served the function of creating the ideological foundation for U.S. wars abroad. Awkwafina shouldn’t get a pass, and neither should anyone else.