Sometimes something happens in the United States that barely registers there but matters a great deal in China. Just ask Jimmy Kimmel.
The comedian has become a symbol of perceived American prejudices against Chinese and Chinese-Americans, thanks to a segment during the Oct. 16 episode of his late-night talk show on ABC, Jimmy Kimmel Live! The notion that such discrimination exists has long festered in Chinese newspapers and on the country’s microblogs (not to mention in private conversations) — often with references to historical precedents such as the late 19th century’s Chinese Exclusion Act, whereby Chinese immigration to the U.S. was severely restricted. Kimmel inadvertently provided a contemporary example of such bias.
The offending bit occurred in a segment called “Kids Table,” which featured young children commenting on current events with Kimmel moderating like a Sunday morning talk-show host. Kimmel prodded the children on the repercussions of the U.S. government shutdown.
“America owes China a lot of money, $1.3 trillion. How should we pay them back?” Kimmel asks. Immediately, one of the children, a six-year-old, offers an answer that concludes, “Kill everyone in China.” Kimmel chuckles and responds, “That’s an interesting idea.” Later, Kimmel asks: “Should we allow the Chinese to live?” The children appear to be split — but Kimmel still gives them space to discuss the merits of doing so. It’s an offensive segment, and one that Kimmel and his producers should never have allowed to air.
In one sense, it’s not hard to understand why the Chinese and Chinese-American communities were so upset. Nationally televised jokes about racial extermination, even when made by six- and seven-year-olds, are rarely funny, especially if they’re directed at you. Even though to Americans (and probably to Kimmel) it might sound over the top to claim a child was publically advocating genocide, that’s what many Chinese heard.
One of the most common Chinese responses to the segment has been to equate it with anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda. (It’s worth noting that Jews and Judaism are widely admired in China, an interest that has generated a small publishing trend.) “Chinese believe that these words of racial discrimination are similar to those used by the Nazis in the 1930s,” Yang Yanqi, a Beijing school teacher, wrote in the influential state-owned Beijing Youth Daily newspaper on Nov. 1.
The same day, Yi Yixian, a Chinese-American columnist with the independent-minded business magazine Caijing, invoked cartoon caricatures of Jews that were published in Germany and Austria during the 1930s: “It is certainly impossible to kill all Chinese. But the open broadcast of such hateful remarks rings an alarm for Chinese-Americans. The persecution toward Jews originated with smears in cartoons.”
The Nazi comparison has had many over-the-top moments (if it wasn’t overblown from the start). Protesters outside Kimmel’s studio carried placards depicting the comedian as Hitler. One Facebook page, “Investigate Jimmy Kimmel Kid’s Table Show on ABC Network,” features a picture of Kimmel seated next to a Nazi flag and a banner declaring “Genocide can never be a joke!” Though Facebook is officially blocked in China, the page has been “liked” more than 7,700 times (strongly suggesting support from outside the country, as well from those in mainland China with virtual private networks and other means around the Great Firewall). And someone in Texas established a White House petition that’s drawn widespread attention in China; it calls for the program to be “cut,” invokes Nazi allusions and just surpassed the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger an official response.
Nevertheless, the numerous references to Nazis are but one manifestation of a pervasive sense, in the wake of the segment’s broadcast, that China and Chinese-Americans aren’t fully respected in American society, especially compared with other immigrant groups. Such Chinese frustrations are sometimes expressed with a candor that many in the U.S. might find impolite or socially intolerable. (In China, racial discussions and comparisons that might make Americans squirm are often perfectly acceptable.) For example, on Oct. 29, Yang Fei, a reporter with state-owned China Radio International, noted: “The U.S. has a double standard. Discrimination against African-Americans and Jews is considered politically incorrect, while remarks that insult China appear again and again. This deeply rooted discrimination is terrifying.”
On Oct. 27, a user of Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging service, who identifies himself as located “overseas” tweeted: “But if those kids said kill the blacks, Muslims or Jews, I think ABC would delete their words. Even if ABC dared to broadcast it, the other minorities wouldn’t stand for it. This is my personal experience living in the U.S.”
The anger didn’t seem to upset ABC or Kimmel, at least initially. The network waited until Oct. 25 to send out its apology as a faxed letter to the 80-20 National Asian American Political Action Committee. (The letter indicates there was an earlier attempt at a phoned apology.) In it, ABC claims that it would never purposely upset “the Chinese community, Asian community, anyone of Chinese descent or any community at large.” The letter also mentions that the clip has been taken down from the network’s platforms and removed from future broadcasts of the show (it remains widely available on the Chinese Internet). Since then, 80-20 has made ABC’s apology the centerpiece of an awkward fundraising appeal that concludes: “To live with the dignity of Jewish Americans, we need to DONATE like Jewish Americans!” On Oct. 28, under growing pressure, Kimmel made an on-air apology, stating, “It was certainly not my intent to upset anyone.” Two days later, Kimmel met with and apologized to protesters at his studio.
In China, these apologies have done little to convince commentators that the underlying cause of the segment — a discriminatory attitude toward Chinese and Chinese-Americans — has changed. In recent days, some commentators in China’s state news media have begun framing the issue in political terms. On Oct. 31, the nationalist state-owned Global Times newspaper ran a commentary in which the Kimmel episode was framed as an example of a “dated mindset” that still embraces American exceptionalism while disregarding — and disrespecting — China’s rise. Yang Yanqi, in her Beijing Youth Daily commentary, notes the protests by Chinese-Americans and attributes them in part to ethnic pride.
Whatever the cause of the protests, and the outrage that precipitated them, there’s little question that Kimmel and ABC will tread more carefully when looking east for future laughs.
Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry that will be published in November.