Best Thing on Netflix Instant Watch: Death by China

By Evan Mantyk
Evan Mantyk
Evan Mantyk
Evan Mantyk is an English teacher in New York and President of the Society of Classical Poets.
December 4, 2013 Updated: April 24, 2016

The best film on Netflix’s Instant Watch is the movie Death by China.  The 2012 documentary narrated by Martin Sheen and created by economics professor Peter Navarro sheds light on how free trade with China was sold to the American people in 2001 as a way of engaging with China, theoretically improving our own economy while also improving China’s human rights and freedoms. 

Instead, the Chinese communist regime continues to crush the human rights and freedoms that we Americans should cherish.  And, it does so while decimating America’s manufacturing base with unfair trade practices and while buying up trillions of dollars of our national debt.

This movie is an American epiphany awaiting anyone who watches.   Yet, the film was not even nominated for an Academy Award and has a dismal 33 percent ranking on Rotten Tomatoes.  Why the disconnect?  First, I say, just watch it!  The movie is part of the most important conversation of our day.  This conversation is only going to get bigger!

Second, my knowledge of Chinese and American politics has filled in the gaps and smoothed out the wrinkles in this movie.  Let me see if I can iron them out for you too:

What the Movie Got Right, But Could Improve

Right: Death by China begins by painting a clear distinction between the Chinese people and the Chinese communist regime, as if to say “We love the Chinese people, but we don’t love the regime.”   This is right on the money.  Many people mistake wanting reform in China for being anti-China.  The Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949 and has destroyed much of China’s 5,000-year-old culture.  That long history, still alive in Chinese people today, is the real China.

Could Improve: The documentary falls into the war-mongering trap of highlighting China’s largest-army-on-earth status and its stealing of U.S. technology. 

The largest army on earth is made up of those Chinese people we supposedly love, undermining the first point.  The military dimension is worth noting, but degrades the conversation to what seems like Cold War-era paranoia. These hostilities are belied by the ubiquitous “Made in China” products on U.S. shelves and the abundance of U.S.-based companies in China, both of which the movie itself highlights. The facts suggest U.S. and China are in this together.  Or, at least there is not significant evidence to counter that notion. President Obama and Gov. Romney both called China a “partner” and that seems the reality of it.

Right: Death by China clearly shows that America’s giant misstep in China relations is something that transcends parties.  U.S. politicians on both sides have played good and bad roles in what is unfolding. This is refreshing sanity.  Americans’ national consciousness is currently paralyzed by petty partisanship broadcast nonstop by the media (save The Epoch Times).  The biggest issues transcend the small-minded political bickering that is read, listened to, and watched with a microscope.  

Could Improve: The documentary could do more to expose the ways our American perspective is warped by the media.  Americans pay so much attention to the death of an unarmed black teen (Trayvon Martin), the arrest of a black professor in his own home (Henry Louise Gates), and a sports team name that could be seen as offensive  (Washington Redskins), but pay very little attention to systematic arrest, torture, and murder of Falun Gong practitioners for their faith in China, as well as the systematic oppression of many other groups.  If we are “partners” with China, then something is wrong here.

Right: Death by China details the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, including how they are killed by state authorities on demand for their organs.  This true story has gone virtually untouched by American media.  Navarro’s fearless reporting on this garners a five-star rating on its own.

Could Improve: While it does talk about human rights, the documentary spends the bulk of its time discussing the American economy, American jobs, and unfair trade.  But, the fact is that, to most Americans, the economy does not seem all that bad at present.  Death by China falls into its own trap by putting money issues first and human rights second.  The human rights dimension is truly the one that can touch people’s hearts and tell a universal story.  A good story, not an economics thesis, is what wins Academy Awards.

As I said in a previous post, not buying “Made in China” is not really an option for most Americans.  But, just creating widespread awareness with something as simple as a holiday greeting (“Merry Christmas, Free Falun Gong, and a Happy New Year!”) could help topple the communist regime with soft power (which the regime itself uses all the time) and solve the problem at its very root.

Conclusion:  Spreading awareness of what the Chinese communist regime is and what America is doing, Death by China, how ever flawed, is an insightful movie that crystallizes the voice of our national conscience in a way that has not been done in decades.  Five stars.

Evan Mantyk
Evan Mantyk is an English teacher in New York and President of the Society of Classical Poets.