The latest episode of NBC’s The Office (Thursdays, 9 PM) entitled “China” uses Michael (Steve Carell) and his newfound fear of China’s economic power as the launching point for its storyline. It’s interesting how this ambivalence towards corporate internationalism seems to be of a piece with another NBC Thursday sitcom, Outsourced. And while that other show appears to be the most egregious example of racial minstrelsy on network television since The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer or perhaps Homeboys in Outer Space, The Office manages to poke fun at American naivety about China while exploring the political and cultural fears permeating the China discussion.
“China” frames its A-story as a debate between Michael and Oscar (Oscar Núñez) the accountant, who is pegged as the office’s know-it-all. After Michael reads an alarmist Newsweek article about the Chinese economy, he tries to get the whole office fired up about the threat to America. Michael focuses on China’s massive population base and its large holdings of American debt, while Oscar points out how much of China remains overwhelmingly agrarian and America’s comparative advantage in the higher-potential information sector. But the substance of the arguments are largely irrelevant, because it’s a sitcom and not The Situation Room, so the debate is more of a pretext for the denizens of Dunder-Mifflin Scranton to score a point against the haughty Oscar. However, there are interesting analogues in Ellie Kemper’s portrayal of Erin the receptionist as the dumb naïf who passively accepts whatever Michael says about China, and how Michael loses the debate on substance but triumphs by papering over the argument with meaningless platitudes and an unswerving faith in American exceptionalism.
This is the same debate that’s played out for years, with Michael taking on the role of the “blue team,” a faction of American foreign policy analysts who believe that China is America’s preëminent potential threat on a number of levels. They reached their peak in the 1990s when the triple whammy of China’s economic boom, its spotty human rights record, and political friction with Taiwan put a spotlight on the region. After being cast into the wilderness when the War on Terror took precedence, the blue team and their ideas have had a resurgence since the economic crisis brought China’s complicated relationship with America and American corporations into stark relief.
But for a sitcom episode using the situation as a pretext for character comedy, there are quite a few incisive points to find here, especially in the show’s seemingly-unrelated B-story. Dwight (Rainn Wilson), an employee at Dunder-Mifflin that also happens to be the office building’s landlord, begins instituting annoying cost-cutting measures such as installing motion sensors for the lights and reducing the toilet paper in the restrooms to half-ply. Pam (Jenna Fischer), in her new role as office administrator, engages in a battle of wits with Dwight to thwart his plans.
The battle for creature comforts placed against the A-story’s China debate generates an entirely different context, bringing it home to Pam’s role as a worker. As consumers, our standards of living are dependent on cheap goods provided by a cheap workforce; but as workers, we’re disturbed by that same workforce who, if not “taking” jobs outright through overseas capital flight, pose a bogeyman threat to worker rights by encouraging a race to the bottom. This is internalized in Pam, a character who has repeatedly changed career paths and is crippled by the fear that she’s not good at any of them, and thus has no economic power of her own. With the ending that this episode gives her (in which Dwight “lets Pam win” to boost her confidence), the message seems to be that the only security we can find in this situation is an illusion.
It’s all about illusions. As Michael displays in this episode, the average American’s engagement with China is through its products and through heavily filtered and spotty reportage. China exists not as a people but as a collection of objects and financial obligations, a vague entity from which it’s easy to construct a looming threat. Even Oscar’s sober rationalism rests on some degree of belief in American long-term triumphalism from the limited information he has access to. A Beijinger columnist once argued that there is no such thing as a “China expert.” There are only people who have lived and breathed China for years and yet only have a narrow specialized base of information that is dangerous to generalize from. The real gap isn’t economics; it’s information, and that’s why much of the political discourse on China approaches the level of a series of sitcom gags.