Fewer than two dozen Pittsburghers showed up at SouthSide Works for last Saturday night's screening of Death by China, a button-pushing documentary about the rising Asian power. But maybe that's no surprise. The film has received little publicity here, and besides, we've already lived through its nightmare scenario: the disappearance of domestic manufacturing, accompanied by the rise of an industrial Asian power.
Three decades ago, our steel industry was collapsing, with Japan a popular scapegoat. But while Pittsburgh was once the poster-child for deindustrialization, today we almost seem like an advertisement for it. "This is the most prosperous-looking city I've been to," says filmmaker Peter Navarro, who's been showing Death by China throughout the Rust Belt, and leading audience discussions at screenings.
But don't be fooled, warns the University of California-Irvine professor.
"It's easy to be smug here, because you've got the health-care industry and you've got the academics," Navarro told me in an interview. "But if China keeps gutting our industrial base, there's not going to be the [tax] base for Medicare and Medicaid, and it's going to be a dog's lunch [for hospitals] here. And these universities are going to keep graduating kids with big student loans and no prospects."
Narrated by Martin Sheen, Death by China warns that China is poaching American jobs by cheating on trade agreements, stealing technology, and abusing its people and environment. What's more, it contends, these misdeeds have been abetted by American multinationals seeking quick profits, and by politicians beholden to them.
Many of these concerns have been documented elsewhere. And to some extent, it would be naïve to think China wouldn't do this stuff. (Pursing one-sided trade deals, tolerating environmental despoliation, punishing union dissidents ... it's almost like the Chinese studied Pittsburgh history!) But Navarro warns that China's massive size — and the scale of its abuses — make such comparisons dangerous. "Don't succumb to the false comparison [between China and] what has transpired before," he told me.
Yet his film has been widely criticized, partly because it's about as subtle as a chopstick jammed in your eyeball. It opens, for example, with the image of an American flag being stabbed by a giant knife, its blade etched with the words "Made in China." And while the film eschews racism, distinguishing between Chinese rulers and their long-suffering people, some of the more lurid content is hotly contested: warnings about China's growing military threat, for example, and allegations that the government harvests organs from political dissidents. (One of the film's fearmongerers, Gordon Chang, has spent years predicting China's imminent collapse. Which makes you wonder what he's doing in a film warning of its dominance.)
Anyway, a better title might have been Suicide by China. The film shows American consumers scurrying about on "Black Friday," blithely purchasing Chinese-made goods. "If the American people can't provide me with what I need, I'll get it from China," one says, his shopping cart filled with stuff he doesn't "need" at all. It makes you wonder whether there's much difference between CEOs going overseas for wider profit margins, and consumers going overseas for cheaper wide-screen TVs. If it weren't for cheap Chinese goods making us feel affluent, would we tolerate America's growing disparities in wealth? If it weren't for the influx of iPods and other electronic distractions, would we be more concerned about whether our lifestyles are sustainable, either environmentally or financially?
That complacence is what Navarro hopes to change. "Everybody who walks out of that theater," he told me, "can no longer buy a made-in-China product without thinking of these things." And maybe he's right that unless we do so, Pittsburgh's "eds and meds" economy will prove as vulnerable as Big Steel was. As someone who grew up here in the 1980s, I remember how easily even a blast furnace can be toppled, how suddenly a way of life can be uprooted.
Then again, I also remember how we blamed our problems on Japan, and how hating a competitor distracted us from changing the rules of the game. That's local history I'd rather not repeat.
Death by China is slated for showings at SouthSide Works through the end of the week. You know the place, right? It's that shopping mall where the steel mill used to be.