As angry and embittered as it is by its subject matter, it feels awkward to call Death by China a labor of love. But the phrase jumps to mind when one considers that, on top of directing this documentary, UC Irvine professor Peter Navarro also wrote and produced it, appears in it as a commentator, co-composed two of the film’s songs, and co-authored the book that spawned the movie itself. Whatever his ultimate intentions, it’s beyond question that Navarro really, really wants people to know about the perils of unrestricted trade with China.
Navarro covers this topic from all angles. He touches on, among other things, ballooning US trade deficit, anemic GDP growth, toxic food, and the loss of stateside manufacturing jobs. In the director’s view, all of these crises can be traced back to a single, crucial event: the 2001 acceptance of China into the World Trade Organization. It is Navarro’s assertion that by welcoming the communist nation into the global trade market, the U.S. has given it carte blanche to engage in mercenary trade tactics and heinous human rights abuse.
Navarro wants to wake people up to the problematic nature of trade with China, but in doing so he has created a pretty one-sided documentary. He rounds up a decent roster of public figures and China experts. We hear from politicians on both sides of the ideological spectrum, labor representatives, bedraggled American workers, noted intellectuals, and one former Chinese political prisoner. They all echo Navarro’s themes and support his thesis. Most of what the commentators have to report is likely true and is certainly in keeping with the filmmaker’s intent. But it still rubs me the wrong way that Navarro chooses only to present this viewpoint, offered it up through hearsay. The film at times seems more like proselytism than documentary filmmaking.
Unfortunately, Navarro’s directorial choices turn the film into a pretty low-rent form of sermonizing. Seemingly unwilling to accept that his audience might be intelligent enough to grasp his central arguments, Navarro insists on explicating his main points through the use of computer animation that wouldn’t be out of place in a Crossroads GPS TV spot. Confused about the cozy relationship between China and major US industries? Have a gander at this conflation of the Wal-Mart logo and the Communist star! Not sure exactly how the US is negatively affected by our trade policy with China? How better to explain it than by dropping cartoon bombs labeled “ILLEGAL EXPORT SUBSIDIES” and “EXPORT TAX REBATES” on a map of the US? These vignettes are a distraction, and Navarro should have thought better of using them.
The checkered history of China-US trade relations is a rich topic, but the subtlety-of-a-sledgehammer approach of Death by China risks alienating viewers who would like to know more about that history. Navarro’s mission is respectable and his work ethic is awe-inspiring. But by bludgeoning his audience over and over again with corny graphics and by restricting his viewpoint to one side of the narrative, Navarro ultimately anesthetizes what could have been an engaging and incendiary documentary.