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DVD Review: The People’s Republic of Capitalism

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Ted Koppel’s excellent The People’s Republic of Capitalism examines the fundamental links between our world in the West and China, highlighting the interdependence of the Chinese and American economies throughout the series’ four 44-minute parts.

The documentary, filmed for the Discovery Channel and now available on DVD, is largely based in the city of Chongqing in China. A sub-provincial city within Sichuan Province, Chongqing is a city of massive growth and incredible change. With an estimated 87.2 million people in the Sichuan Province and, according to 2005 estimates, 31,442,300 of those people in Chongqing, it’s easy to see why there’s plenty of room for expansion.

The four parts do well in realizing Koppel’s intentions, showcasing the change and intrinsic links between American and Chinese societies in terms of economic growth. With China emerging as an economic superpower and with an expanding middle class challenging traditional values, understanding the nation is essential.

By all rights, China has taken the basics of capitalism and worked them much to their advantage. Suggesting that China is still a communist country is laughable to many of Koppel’s interview subjects, as they build their fortunes on gigantic developments and real estate ventures. In many ways, China is more purely capitalistic than America.

The first part of the series, “Joined at the Hip,” explores the interdependence of the Chinese and American economies. We learn how American manufacturers like Briggs & Stratton and Apple utilize low-cost Chinese labour to reduce assembly costs. In exchange for this cheap labour, the Chinese receive American capital for investments in technology. American consumers provide a geared-up market for goods at outlets like Wal-Mart.

With much of rural China remaining in poverty, the mounting middle and upper class amplify demand for imported luxury goods from America and other countries.

Outsourcing is explored, with the interdependence touted by some as a win-win and by others as the closing stages of local, small businesses. While investments do bring good returns, it’s hard to argue with a colossal chunk of jobs being sent overseas for cheap labour. In the end, the owners profit while the workers, both in America and in China, wind up making very little for their efforts.

The second part of the series, “Mao-ism to Me-ism,” details the cultural shift. Koppel speaks to people with mixed emotions about the Cultural Revolution. The rural peasants, confined to a life of few economic opportunities in the countryside, wind up heading into the cities in search of opportunities. Some of those opportunities are less than ideal.

With prostitution and homosexuality technically still prohibited in China, Koppel highlights the rise of gay clubs and “karaoke” bars that have government officials looking the other way as long as they remain private and turn a profit.

In perhaps the most interesting interview of the series, Koppel talks to a young artist who expresses a readiness to trade political freedoms for greater economic prosperity. His ideology of not loving but ultimately and entirely trusting his government makes for fascinating commentary in light of common rural dissent.

“The Fast Lane,” the third part in the series, explores the automobile industry in China. With the Chinese government having designs of expansion in regards to the automobile manufacturing industry, substantial highways and roads are being built all over the country. Koppel notes the unique explosion of “car culture,” drawing lines between the Chinese dependence on bicycles for generations to their brand new love of the car.

With the growth of the Chinese automobile industry, largely as a result of cheaply produced cars that habitually fail safety and emissions standards in the West, there is a wealth of opportunity for American car makers. It also presents noteworthy problems, however, as China looks to occupy the American car market and sell their vehicles in the United States.

The final part of the series, “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” discusses coal as China’s fuel for economic growth. Koppel goes down in one of the safest mines in China, explaining the differences between American and Chinese mine systems and their safety records.

With the government largely apathetic in regards to the plight of the poor, the Chinese peasants find themselves in intriguing situations with developers looking for new, inexpensive land. The rural Chinese have little pull to gather services, like health care or care for the elderly, and wind up struggling to avoid being evacuated at the impulse of a massive foreign development firm.

Finally, Koppel explores how the pro-business attitude of the Chinese government creates inconceivable corruption and has little to do with political freedom. With dishonesty a fact of life, government officials normally take bribes and pay the price for being caught. Those making the bribe offer in the first place often get away scot-free.

The People’s Republic of Capitalism also includes a comprehensive viewer’s guide booklet and an interview with Ted Koppel. In the interview, Koppel highlights his experiences in China over the last 40 years and how things have changed since visits with Richard Nixon and on other assignments.

While the Chinese people long for material comfort and riches, there is a long way to go in terms of creating a totally free society. In spite of this, the doors to international businesses are wide open.

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    China has taken the basics of capitalism and worked them much to their advantage?

    communism’s politics
    capitalist economy