Death By China: Film Review

Death by China Poster Art - P 2012

Death by China Poster Art - P 2012

Doc offers plenty of good reasons to worry about China, but is astonishingly heavy-handed.

Martin Sheen narrates writer Peter Navarro's fear stoking documentary about China's economic and military power.

Full of legitimate, even urgent concerns but so garish in tone it encourages viewers to view it as propaganda, Peter Navarro's Death By China does a disservice to its message. Its collection of bullet points about U.S.-Sino relations makes for a useful summary of reasons to worry; while mainstream auds will find it too much, the doc could be a niche hit with support from the right members of the politics/commentary class. Its lack of subtlety will appeal to many of them.

Writer/director Navarro, adapting his book of the same name, dates most of his worries to 2001, when China entered the WTO. (The date is repeated so many times, it's the one number in this stat-happy film viewers won't forget.) Narrator Martin Sheen warns upfront that it's important to "distinguish clearly between the good and hard-working people of China, and their repressive Communist government victimizing American and Chinese citizens alike." Those words might be lost underneath the accompanying graphic: a stars-and-stripes-colored U.S., toppling to the ground and being stabbed by a serrated knife -- blood spurting out as we see the words "made in China" on the blade.

Imagery gets less gruesome but more heavy-handed from there. As Navarro describes the ways China built up economic power at U.S. expense, CG animation visualizes everything in terms of warfare. "China's Weapons of Job Destruction" are shown raining explosive terror across the heartland, blowing up factories.

It isn't as if the real, non-metaphorical effects of China's policies aren't sufficiently worrisome. Navarro offers details about currency manipulation and prison labor; explains how Chinese piracy extends far beyond DVD bootlegging; and runs down the familiar list of tainted-food and toxic-toys scandals. He has particular scorn for "The Great Wall of Mart," claiming that 91 percent of everything Walmart sells is made in China.

While he's demonizing this new Red Menace, Navarro has plenty to say about American politicians and multinational corporations as well. He traces the arguments policymakers offered for expanded trade in the early days, then shows how few of the predicted benefits materialized. He takes pains to find fault among members of both parties, and manages to get both Democratic and Republican congressmen to speak on camera, but the overall low recognition-factor of the film's interviewees furthers the impression of agit-prop that famous scholars and officials refused to participate in.

Production Company: DBC Productions
Director-Producer-Screenwriter: Peter Navarro
Producers: Joe Zarinko, Michael Addis, Greg Autry
Executive producers: Peter Navarro
Director of photography: Kasey Kirby
Music: Christophe Eagleton
Editor: John W. Carr, Michael Addis, Peter Navarro
No rating, 79 minutes.