The title sequence of the documentary Death by China opens with the Chinese flag—shaped like a knife—plunging into an outline of the 48 states dressed in the American flag. We hear a garish squish. As Old Glory bleeds, the film’s narrator, Martin Sheen, somberly reminds us that throughout this film we should “always distinguish clearly between the good and hardworking people of China, and their repressive communist government.” This is a dressed-up version of “I don’t wanna sound racist, but…” It’s the type of disclaimer that precedes the ugliest thoughts.
Death by China argues that China’s growing economic dominance is attributable to competitive advantages gained by the government’s lack of concern about polluting, abuse of workers, currency manipulation, intellectual property theft, and illegal export subsidies. The film calls upon the viewer to boycott goods “made in China” and to demand that the US government fix the trade balance between the two nations.
Peter Navarro, the film’s director, producer, and writer, is a professor of Economics and Public Policy at UC Irvine; Death by China is not, presumably, part of his academic output. Navarro assembles a quick-fire montage of interviews with politicians, professors, business owners, labor leaders, and researchers. Interwoven with these is the vox populi—interviews with a sampling of laypeople who have opinions (strong ones!) about China’s relationship with the US.
In this swirl of voices, it is nearly impossible to hold onto a sense of who (Navarro or the interviewee) is making the claims, or which facts they are based upon. Aside from a few numbers at the beginning—like America’s 25 million unemployed and the 3 trillion dollars of debt owned by China (a debatable figure)—statistics take a back seat to war-ready rhetoric like pundit Gordon Chang’s assertion that China is the “only major nation in the world that is preparing to kill Americans.”
Only two-thirds in does Death by China stop to discuss how the US government (and its people and corporations) could allow the country to sink to its current level of economic defeat. The film points to American multinational corporations and their willingness to move manufacturing overseas for an increased profit. The featured interviewees seem to be in agreement about this. Surely, the film should be called Death by Multinational Corporations; China could easily be replaced by another nation willing to supply cheap labor, such as India. But Navarro’s line of reasoning is disturbingly, glaringly simple: he needs a scapegoat.
There is a conspicuous absence of Chinese voices in the documentary. Not a single worker, labor organizer, business leader, or politician from the People’s Republic of China appears to explain this “cruel onslaught” against the United States. By refusing to include dissenting opinions, Navarro turns the film into an echo chamber of hysteria: a group of like-minded people fixated on an image of a country it is not clear they know much about. A rational defense by the Chinese people causing this hysteria would dampen the tenor of the film. Worse, it would risk humanizing them: the politicians who are only keeping up with the Americans’ games, the factory workers on whom we so heavily rely.
Death by China’s premises and insinuations are so far gone that it is dangerous to even critique them; with sensationalists, all fear is good fear. Unfortunately, this type of language will only escalate with China’s economic growth; witness President Obama’s toughened stance towards China. For those already given to xenophobia and warmongering, the film’s irrational howls offer a compelling case. This rhetoric becomes self-fulfilling—Death by China may be ludicrous, but it is a grim symbol of a politics ruled by fear.