An indelible image in Peter Navarro's new documentary Death by China -- based on the book of the same name by Navarro and co-author Greg Autry -- depicts a heartwarming Christmas scene at a cozy American home, its front yard embraced by an angelic light show with Peace on Earth as its centerpiece. There's only one thing wrong: the caption, which points out that the lights were "Made in [Chinese] forced labor camps."
The connection between the irresistibility of cheap Chinese-made products and the loss of America's manufacturing base -- along with the threat to peace on earth -- is at the heart of Death by China, written, directed and produced by Navarro, an author, scholar and professor of economics and public policy at UC Irvine.
The film illuminates such hazy concepts as trade imbalance, currency manipulation and intellectual property theft by interweaving commentary by such prominent talking heads as U.S.-China Commission member Carolyn Bartholomew, economist Jared Bernstein and Forbes columnist Gordon Chang with visuals that illustrate problems barely on the radar screens of most Americans.
We see lines of Thanksgiving-day shoppers waiting hours at a Walmart to buy cut-rate Chinese-made computers and toys; unemployment lines and food-bank lines that barely sustain families of laid-off American factory workers; and lines of abused Chinese workers marching in prison-like labor camps.
Thousands of American companies are going out of business and millions of American jobs are being Shanghaied as global corporations take advantage of the dramatically lower cost of doing business -- wages, compliance with workers' rights, safety and environmental safeguards -- in a place where workers are paid a tiny fraction of what their American counterparts earn, and where the government looks the other way rather than enforce even the flimsiest regulations.
So, the film demonstrates, we don't make cell phones, computers and printers anymore. And Apple, through Foxconn, provides low-wage jobs to 700,000 Chinese workers, more than ten times the number of the company's better-paid American employees.
Navarro also makes the case that our China policies contribute to that country's ability to develop a cyber security apparatus that could wreak havoc as well as a military force far greater than anything this planet has ever seen.
"The most important takeaway of the film for consumers is to understand that buying Made in China products is bad for our economy, our personal safety and possibly our national security," says Navarro.
China policy is hardly top of mind for our elected leaders. When it was mentioned at all during the presidential race, it was trivialized with cartoonish sound bites: Mitt Romney hurling a schoolyard epithet -- "Cheaters!" -- and President Obama maintaining that we are fighting the cheating.
Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) Ryan -- who tells the story of a laid-off worker whose last act on the job was to bolt up his machine so it could be delivered to China -- co-sponsored a bill that would crack down on China's currency manipulation. It's stalled in the House, a victim of the clout of mega-corporations that don't want to pay American workers a fair wage or adhere to pesky environmental regulations when they can reap soaring profits via bargain-basement overhead.
Given the interconnectedness of corporate and government interests, are we destined to consume ever more than we create? To see the Dow rise in inverse proportion to the unemployment rate?
Perhaps not. President Obama understands that we can't stay on the trajectory of losing manufacturing jobs to China while we borrow trillions from them to finance our debt. As the president might say, the math just doesn't add up.
Some smart observers argue that while China does pose a threat, things aren't as dire as they might seem. Washington Post wonk extraordinaire Ezra Klein says, "China is getting much better" with regard to currency manipulation. And The Atlantic's James Fallows acknowledges there are dangers but believes that on balance, "America's economic relationship with China has been successful and beneficial -- and beneficial for both sides"
It's hard for a non-expert to determine the true depth of the China problem. To make an informed opinion, we owe it to ourselves to check out Death by China, which ends with the proposition that only a large-scale grassroots movement will put enough pressure on the government to force decisive action.
Walmart Boycott, anyone?