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Talk About the Sleeping Dragon

When the debate about China as a world superpower makes its way to primetime comedy, does it mean people are aware enough to get the joke or just indicative of increasing alarm?

By Kim Ukura, Associate Editor, PD&D

Anyone who has ever worked in an office can appreciate some of the humor of NBC’s The Office -- even if we haven’t had a boss like the bumbling and offensive Michael Scott.

In an episode earlier this month, Michael arrived to work after a morning dentist appointment with some alarming news: “China is going to pass us as the number one global super power! When did this happen?”

Michael’s concerns about China – repeated to his coworkers from the news magazine feature he read at the dentist’s office – are both serious and ridiculous. He worries that more of our stuff is made in China rather than here in the United States; that the tallest man in the world is from China; and that China becoming a superpower would lead to a world where forks are irrelevant and every man, woman, and child would be expected to learn the cello.

 “China is a sleeping dragon ready to stir,” Michael announces.

In typical The Office fashion, the discussion of China takes a more mundane twist. After the initial panic, Michael “out smarts” office know-it-all Oscar with one piece of China-related trivia, resulting in a coffee break debate about China to prove who is smarter. You can watch the full episode online to see how that turns out.

I’ve been watching The Office since it debuted on American TV back in 2005, and I’ve always thought that the show does a good job of balancing absurdity and realism when it comes to the idea of being an office drone in America.

The episode struck me as interesting because it was one of the first times I’ve seen a debate from my work life show up television -- although that might just be an indication of the quality of TV I usually watch, rather than evidence of a larger China black-out from broadcast shows.

However, China being on The Office gives me the sense that enough people are aware of the issues that they can pick up on the humor of Michael’s misunderstandings. That’s a good thing. But I also wonder how many people are like Michael -- totally unaware of the problem then panicked about the state of the world after a single news story?

I don’t know if seeing a debate about China on TV will change minds that are already made up, but I can hope that it will get people thinking that hadn’t considered the issue before. Sparked curiosity could lead to a few Google searches or some time at a major news website and provide a lot of food for thought on this issue.

More importantly, seeing the China debate in pop culture gives an opportunity for people “in the know” -- engineers, manufacturers, distributors, and others -- to have a starting point in a discussion about the challenges China presents to our industries. Making it onto TV in a humorous way gives the debate relevance to people who might miss it otherwise.

If The Office can show us anything, it’s that there are ways to talk about big issues in a small way, to share problems and maintain a sense of humor, and to help create a curiosity about major issues that are going to change the world economy in the next decade.

So let’s get talking -- I am not excited to live in a world without forks.

Have you seen debates about China and manufacturing come up in other pop culture contexts? Is this a sign of good things to come, or a cheapening of the debate to a source of mockery? Share your thoughts in the comments or e-mail [email protected].