Film Review: Death by China

Angry, fatally biased but watchable documentary ranting at China for its transgressions and damage done to the U.S. economy cries out for second opinions from other corners besides those damning.

Peter Navarro’s blast at China, blaming the new economic power for America’s severe unemployment and manufacturing slump, is about as shrill and one-sided as a documentary dare get. Too bad, because the more examination the better of this very real problem of a China rising on a shameful heap of so many poorly paid workers and cheap products (to say nothing of the country’s ever-deepening class divides). But propaganda today—in a post-Hitler, post-Stalin, post-Mao era—cannot be naive and demands balance and opposing points-of-view. Death by China hasn’t an ounce.

Rather, Navarro, outraged and rightly so, gives us an arsenal of material supporting his attack. He uses smart animation to visualize the issues and depressing statistics and provides important background like China joining the World Trade Organization free-trade agreement in 2001, the move that opened this Pandora’s box.

Archival footage shows Presidents Reagan and Clinton paving China’s way into the WTO. We see China’s vast army of factory workers and, in a warning about the country’s military build-up, other vast armies of real marching soldiers.

There are the usual talking heads (some lifted from news footage), but most are not familiar. They include Harry Wu, who spent many years in a Chinese prison camp where even detainees made products for export. Also on board is Forbes columnist Gordan Chang, who complains that the Communist Party doesn’t punish manufacturers for poorly made products.

And China also takes it on the chin for currency manipulation, rampant intellectual-property theft, human-rights abuses, trafficking in kidneys, persecution of dissenters like Falun Gong and Tibet. The country is also labeled the world’s most degraded environment, no thanks to a government that allows it to pollute.

Even ordinary Americans take a slap on the wrist for buying so much Made in China product (the bikes, the HDTVs, etc.). Other tidbits: The U.S. now also owes several trillion to China (oft referred to here as “totalitarian” China).

Broadly stated, the familiar message gets driven home. The cause of so much stress to the U.S. economy has to do with lax or no laws stateside, greedy and powerful giant U.S. multinational companies that are outsourcing their jobs and assuring continuation of this strategy by using armies of lobbyists able to talk anyone into almost anything, and China’s ability to exploit a competitor’s weaknesses. Such a perfect storm has thousands of smaller U.S. companies struggling to stay alive and work flooding out of this country.

On an upbeat note, the doc does try to drive home that it is not blaming the Chinese people but the Communist government. Yet Death by China still functions as flat-out propaganda, pure and simple and bludgeoning. There’s not a shred of opinion or testimony from the other side, whether from China itself, academics, experts in government or think-tank wonks. Sadly, such one-sidedness blunts a very real problem.

As a by-product of Death by China’s monolithic stance, it does beg (unintentionally) for a balanced sequel addressing possible solutions. Its slam (also no doubt unintentionally) reminds that there’s no business person or government on the planet that would not, like China, take advantage of another’s laxity, paralysis, greed, self-interest and inefficiencies, especially when such moves fall within the law.