Express Murder on the Orient, by Kyle Anderson
Documentaries are certainly under no obligation to be uplifting, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more sad and terrified after a movie than I was when I’d finished watching Peter Navarro’s incendiary political/economic indictment, Death by China. Based on the book of the same name written by Navarro and Greg Autry, this film is trying to scare us, but scare us into action, or at least out of complacency. When the poster for the film is a Chinese knife stabbing into the American Midwest, I don’t think anybody’s beating around the bush. Almost everything we buy has been made in China, by workers who are essentially slaves, for a government that is actively trying to ruin the American economy. But when everything is made in China, how can we buy anything else? Moreover, what, if anything, can we do? The film eventually offers solutions, but first there’s a lot of terrifying to do.
Narrated by Martin Sheen, the film uses interviews with dozens of experts, manufacturers, former Chinese workers, economists, consumers, and politicians to illustrate the troubling point that China (the government, not the people) is, in effect, killing America. The trouble stems from President Bill Clinton’s insistence that China be allowed to join the World Trade Organization. It was his and other American business leader’s assurance that free trade with China would mean selling American goods in the most populace country in the world, meaning higher exporting and more jobs. However, almost immediately after China’s admittance to the WTO, it became much cheaper to buy goods produced in China, meaning fewer people were buying American in America. It also became insanely more profitable for businesses, especially manufacturers, to move production to China, where there isn’t nearly the same kind of rules about who can work, how long they can work, how safe the working conditions are, how much the factories can pollute, and even the quality of the product being made. As such, companies are making much more money while the US is in the middle of a horrible recession.
The film then goes into an intense description of the ways in which China is killing us, what the Navarro calls “Weapons of Job Destruction.” Not only does China employ appallingly poor workplace environments (they do, in fact, keep people locked up in labor camps for years at a time) but they also manipulate their currency to make their exports cheaper to Americans but American exports too expensive for people in China to be able to buy. They also offer illegal export subsidies, counterfeit products, and pirate machinery and technology for their own use and distribution. American multinationals like Apple, Boeing, Caterpillar, and GE especially have been implicit in shipping American jobs to China simply to keep their profits high.
This film is essentially a string of facts; horrifying, gut-wrenching facts about the internal destruction of the American manufacturing base through the external influence of Communist China (the film makes note that it shouldn’t be called “The People’s Republic” at all). For not being very long (the cut I saw was 79 minutes, IMDb lists it as 64), the film is not short on information. There are computer animated sequences that illustrate some of the topics discussed, but largely, it’s just a bunch of talking heads. It’s hard to fault the film’s cinematic shortcomings when it presents its information as quickly and with as much impact as it does. There is still, obviously, a very strong opinion presented by the filmmaker. The film is pleading with its audience to understand what’s happening and to move forward to rectify the problem. It’s one of the most earnest documentaries I’ve ever seen. Each of the experts are doing the intellectual equivalent of shaking the audience by its shoulders and trying to make it understand. It does offer the perspective of people profiting from offshore production, but even they are sympathetic in a way. The film does end on a somewhat hopeful note, in as much as it offers us a solution, however it’s not an easy one.
This is not a fun movie to watch, but I think it’s a supremely important one. Nobody in the screening in which I saw it had anything to say but variations on “Oh shit,” when the lights came up. Death by China does not have a wide release plan, so word of mouth will be key. If you get the opportunity to see it, by all means do. And tell people you know to see it. One older gentleman at the screening asked when the film was released. When I told him it opened in LA on August 17, the man simply said, “It’s not soon enough.”