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Review: Emotions, not economics, guide 'Death by China'

'Death by China' plays hard and loose with the facts as it examines the trade relationship between the U.S. and China.

August 16, 2012
  • Prisoners walk beside a police escort during a prison open day in Nanjing, 11 April 2005, in eastern China. China's law enforcers are sounding the alarm as new data shows the number of drug addicts is rising fast while crime-fighting capabilities are falling. Tougher law enforcement is one of China's responses to the mounting drug problem.
Prisoners walk beside a police escort during a prison open day in Nanjing,… (STR / AFP / Getty Images )

There's an important political argument at the core of Peter Navarro's agitprop documentary "Death by China," but it's drowned out by xenophobic hysteria and exaggerations so rampant it becomes impossible to tell light from heat.

Narrator Martin Sheen draws prefatory distinction between the odious practices of the Chinese government and its "good, hard-working people," but it's obliterated by graphics that depict the country as a knife plunging deep into the heart of the good ol' U.S. of A.

Navarro, who teaches economics at UC-Irvine, directs most of his ire toward what the film calls "weapons of job destruction," the combination of low wages, environmental disregard and currency manipulation that, so Navarro holds, have allowed China to wipe out the manufacturing base in the U.S.

Sheen throws around phrases like "illegal subsidies" and "the biggest political shell game in American history," but the film rarely pauses to parse its own hyperbole, giving its interview subjects free rein, including one who claims that China is "the only major nation in the world that is preparing to kill Americans." (Shh, no one tell Kim Jong Un.)

Substituting rhetoric for argument, "Death by China" doesn't preach to the choir so much as it holds a revival meeting in an empty tent.

Sam Adams

"Death by China." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes. At Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.

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