The opening graphics for Death By China, a scaremongering tract about the corrosive impact of America’s free-trade agreement with China, feature a 3-D shot of the continental United States with red, white, and blue flag stripes painted across it. It then shudders, tips, and falls against an all-black surface with a thud. While America is lying there, prone and helpless as a newborn babe, down comes a serrated knife jammed right through the heartland. The label? Made In China. Then blood pours down to reveal the title. This is the level of rhetoric on display in this rabid piece of agitprop, which swamps a number of legitimate arguments against the current trade arrangement between the U.S. and China with the strident brushstrokes of a bad editorial cartoon.
Director Peter Navarro adapts his book of the same title (co-written with Greg Autry, and given the suitably overblown subtitle Confronting The Dragon—A Global Call To Action), but he seems concerned that his audience will grow bored with a lot of wonky discussion of currency manipulation and the dwindling state of our manufacturing base. So he hammers the message home with ominous music and shots of animated bombers and missiles blowing up the words “Free Trade” and taking out the houses of Congress. For Navarro, the trouble began with China’s admittance into the World Trade Organization and the bipartisan conviction that free trade with a county of more than a billion people would open up new markets and create jobs. In reality, a trade imbalance has caused multinational corporations to set up shop overseas, where they can pay low wages and avoid environmental and safety regulations. It’s also turned the U.S. into a service economy, devastated its manufacturing base, and left it trillions of dollars in the hole. These are all legitimate concerns, which Navarro supports with testimony from economists, politicians, union leaders, and businesspeople, but they’re undermined at every point by a sky-is-falling hysteria that registers as white noise. It’s the documentary equivalent of a raving street-corner derelict.