Further confirmation that agitprop documentaries have become wedded to a template that undermines their very arguments, Death by China is a marvel at finding ways to sabotage its own credibility. Narrated by Martin Sheen, Peter Navarro’s documentary takes aim at America’s loss of manufacturing jobs, which the film blames squarely on China’s behavior in the aftermath of its joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. That development was hailed at the time by President Clinton as a landmark designed to create a “one-way street” for American goods to enter China’s 1.3 billion-person market, but also led to China providing the U.S. with cheaply produced goods made more profitable by the country’s lack of adequate labor or environmental practices, as well as its ongoing currency manipulations. These issues are real, yet Death by China is a work that calls its own contentions into constant question by adhering to a bastardized form of Michael Moore’s filmmaking model, which proffers numerous opinions bolstered by selective statistics in a cursory rat-a-tat manner gussied up by CG graphical sequences that, in their cutesiness, imply that adults can’t understand complex ideas without the aid of cartoons.
If Navarro’s film follows its genre predecessors in occasionally treating its audience like children, it’s larger problem is moving so fast through each of its numerous topics (worker abuses, illegal export subsidies, counterfeiting, poisoned toys) that none of its assertions hold any weight, thus destroying any sense of legitimacy. By opting for soundbite-size claims over in-depth investigation, Death by China comes across as unreliable, even when it momentarily hits upon a rich vein, such as the way in which short-term thinking drives multinational corporations to value immediate profit over long-term loyalty to their home countries. Lip service is paid to China’s human-rights violations—replete with photos of supposed Falun Gong victims of organ-theft atrocities—and Internet censorship aided by American outfits like Google and Yahoo. Yet hard facts are always secondary to unsubstantiated statements put forth by a legion of talking heads (including tons of man-on-the-street nobodies), as well as Sheen’s narration and on-screen text, all of which coalesce into a general, scare-tactic portrait of impending doom. The result is merely another bastard offspring of Moore’s cinema-of-argumentation—a work that tackles a contemporary hot-button issue through insinuation, selective facts, and fear-mongering aimed, ultimately, at just motivating viewers to visit the activist website advertised at its conclusion.