Opinion Piece: Book Review

Written by Bethany Tucker

Copyright 2016

Review of Death by China  by Peter Navarro and Greg Autry

I will preface this review of Death by China by Peter Navarro and Greg Autry with some transparency and reference points. I hold a four year degree in East Asian Studies from Denison University, including a year abroad at Nanjing University, Jiangsu Province, People’s Republic of China. Following graduation, I returned to China to work on two international projects: first, a program for the Jiangsu Higher Education in cooperation with major western universities, and second, an intensive business and international student educational center run by Australian nationals with coworkers from Europe, Britain, and the U.S.A. I will, hereafter, refer to the People’s Republic of China as PRC, although Navarro exclusively uses the title “China”.

In Death by China  book, Peter Navarro and Greg Autry have done their research. The writing is direct, well formatted and easily consumed. They fill the pages of Death by China with extensive data points, focused mainly on trade deficits between the U.S. and the PRC. He quotes several times from another book, which I do recommend, Poorly Made in China,  and provides a long bibliography list in the back of the book. Many factual references made, I can confirm myself, having personally experienced them..

However, I cannot recommend this text. And the answer is simple: bias.

The facts check out in some cases; not all facts lined up completely. The book was published in 2011. They claim early in the book that the trade deficit was at nearly 1 billion dollars a day in the PRC’s favor. However, in 2016, it was almost exactly 1 billion dollars a day. In 2011, it was only at 849,000,000 USD per day. This is significantly less than the catastrophized 1 billion U.S.D., even though, years after the book was published, we’ve reached that mark.

Navarro and Autry have an argument. There is a trade deficit. However, there is  also a willingness on the part Navarro and Autry to lean heavily on a worse case scenario narrative. In writing to a general public about such an important topict as public safety and the need for the U.S.A. to combat its dramatic loss of manufacturing, I can forgive a simplification, to an extent. It is still troubling.

However, what should not be countenanced is the racist language present on nearly every page. Navarro and Autry continuously use adjectives such as “blackhearted”. The first fifteen chapters begin with the word “death”. A contaminated drywall made in China is not “contaminated drywall” but “contaminated Chinese drywall” (p.34), “China’s putatively ‘low cost’ drywall” (p.35), and “Chinese junk” (p.35) twice. I could go on, but repeating such language is distasteful.

Criticism, even severe criticism of the unsafe production and manufacturing that takes place within the PRC should take place. It is deserved. There are many factory owners seeking to make as much money as possible with as little cost as possible. Which is exactly why U.S. companies have chosen to buy from them. They also want to pay as little as possible.  My own personal stories and frustrations would fill a book itself. But when the authors choose to magnify an already serious and fully proven problem and turn it into a narrative based on ethnicity or country of origin as they do on page thirty-three, they have now entered into the territory of racism and national hate.

“...in a series of ‘Chinese junk-ettes’, the problems range from shoddy production methods and sheer stupidity to the more nefarious games of ‘Chinese Product Adulteration’ and the national pastime of the Chinese black hearts we like to call the ‘Quality Con’.” (p33)

Making up a name like “Quality Con” and labeling it as a national pastime of black hearts of a particular nationality creates the image of dark figure tapping its fingers together and chortling over the pain inflicted on others because of its miserly ways, all while dressed in the national garb.

And now you have painted an entire set of people -who cannot choose whether or not they wish to belong to that group- with the same brush of dastardliness.

This book reflects a rise of nationalism in U.S.A. and an opaque understanding of the situation on the ground within the PRC. An entire people group is not born greedy and cruel. This is racism. Sensationalist writing detracts from the serious issues at hand and discredits the message that sincerely needs to be propagated. As consumers, we must communicate with our dollars to demand quality and safety, whether the product is made in Mexico, Japan, China, or the U.S.A.

The problem starts with us, and our willingness to buy ever lower quality to save money in the short term. It starts with us tolerating such low wages that many of us need to buy the cheap goods from China because we cannot afford to spend more for consumables made elsewhere. It starts with us tolerating such high rates of return for CEO’s and others at the top of the economic food chain and such low rates of returns for those producing in the middle and at the bottom, and thus the depression of wages for the U.S.A.’s working class. Cheap, as Navarro and Autry write, does come at a price.

We should not tolerate the leading leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and sectors of the PRC’s economy to manipulate the international economy for their own, single-sided gains. They operate outside of the international rules of engagement and should be brought to account.

On the flip side, we should also have no tolerance for racist fear mongering at home.