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Death by China

August 17, 2012  |  11:43pm
<i>Death by China</i>

Economist Peter Navarro tries his hand at documentary filmmaking with mixed results in the provocative Death by China. As a wake-up call for Americans to pay greater attention to their nation’s corrupt corporate and political policies towards China since that nation’s induction into the World Trade Organization in 2001, Navarro scores points. But to take Death by China’s message seriously—and it is a profoundly serious one—the viewer must overcome Navarro’s less-than-imaginative, bargain basement filmic techniques. That Martin Sheen narrates the documentary lends it credibility, an intelligence that compels Navarro’s audience to sit up and take notice. So it’s a shame that the material that Sheen must put his weight behind is conceived in such a shrill, amateur fashion.

The animated title graphic of a knife—its blade printed with “Made in China” and plunging into a map of America draped in the Stars and Stripes—is the documentary’s signature image, and its combination of metaphorical and technical cheesiness sets the tone for the film’s parade of poorly conceived, heavy-handed graphics that betray Navarro’s unpracticed instincts as a filmmaker. It’s not the low-budget quality of such images—indeed, one wonders if Navarro edited his movie on a Macbook—but their lack of cleverness and easy fear-mongering that undermine the documentary’s essentially worthwhile topic.

With his Harvard pedigree and his acclaimed credentials, Navarro is an authority on the subject of the U.S.-China trade relationship. Death by China features him along with several geopolitical experts and activists spelling out exactly how and why this nation’s corporate-political nexus sold out the American worker and consumer to the tune of thousands of factories, millions of jobs and trillions in debt owed to the Chinese. After Clinton ushered China into the WTO, American multinationals moved their factories in droves to the Middle Kingdom, where they could take advantage of cheap labor and little to no environmental controls while stuffing their pockets with lucrative profit margins. By taking advantage of a work force that gets a paid a fraction of its American counterpart, multinationals like Apple, GE and Boeing have all but ceased to be American companies, moving not only labor but—however tacitly—their R&D, as well. It doesn’t take long to make the link between multinationals off-shoring their R&D and the very real phenomenon of the Chinese government pirating America’s high-value intellectual property.

And who’re the losers in this scenario? Interviews with out-of-work factory workers, college graduates and with both Democratic and Republican legislators paint a picture of widespread blight as unemployment destroys communities and consumers find themselves without any choice but to buy Chinese-made goods. Navarro trundles out both the well-known examples of toxic toys and toothpaste as well as lesser-known evils like inferior grade sushi and fish. And not only has the American industrial base dangerously shrunk, the Chinese triumphs in this arena have also bolstered its totalitarian policies. More than ever, human beings are treated like so much cheap disposable product: Navarro cites a chilling example of political prisoners in labor camps used for organ harvesting alongside his highlighting of subhuman factory conditions.

Death by China finally indicts each of us as enablers of this state of affairs. A culture of living grossly beyond our means and an insatiable hunger for cheap high-tech goods has given Americans an illusion of prosperity. It’s an illusion that Death by China, along with similar activist-documentaries like Inside Job (2010) and Food, Inc. (2008) effectively bring to light. Navarro and others in Death by China assert that it’s up to each of us to recognize that, by taking part in the illusion, we’re complicit in our nation’s downfall and in the abetting of our longstanding participation with an oppressive system. The revolution, they suggest, may be as simple as weeding out as many “Made in China” goods as possible from our daily lives. A boycott speaks louder than words.

Director: Peter Navarro
Writer: Peter Navarro
Starring: Martin Sheen (narrator), Tim Ryan, Carolyn Bartholomew, Jared Bernstein, Chris Smith, Dana Rohrabacher, Gordon Chang, Harry Wu, Patrick Mulloy, Thea Lee
Release Date: Aug. 17, 2012

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