Posted: 05/31/2009


The People’s Republic of Capitalism

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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The People’s Republic of Capitalism examines the intricate bonds between the United States and China, as China transforms from a communist society to one leaning more toward capitalism. Veteran broadcast news anchor Ted Koppel explores the economic dynamics between the two dynamic global entities in a four-part documentary released on DVD from the Acorn Media Group’s Athena Line on June 2.

The documentary took a year to make and includes segments titled “Joined at the Hip,” “MAO-ism to ME-ism,” “The Fast Lane,” and “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” Koppel examines China’s new status as an economic superpower and its complex relationship with the United States. The focus is on the city of Chongqing, in Southwestern China, which has a population of 13.5 million with goals to reach 20 million within a few years.

Koppel also details how many American companies have moved their operations to China to save money, even if it meant leaving untold Americans out of work. The idea, one Chinese manager explained, is that China pays lower salaries, but the work is done at higher efficiencies.

The People’s Republic of Capitalism shares interviews with poor rural Chinese who make between $1 and $4 daily, to the emerging middle class who make enough money to purchase the IPod’s, cell phones and other Western materialistic trappings.

One company profiled in The People’s Republic of Capitalism is Briggs and Stratton, a long-time employer in Rolla, Missouri, which laid off 480 workers in September 2007 and moved its operations to China. There, Chinese workers make snow blower engines and ship them back to the United States, all cheaper than having them manufactured in the United States. The refrain in one boom box factory is: “snap it on, plug it in, check it out, and send it on.”

With all the new goods being made in China, there’s also a new interest and market for high-end Western goods, and while Wal-Mart is the economy store in many American neighborhoods, this same retail icon is considered the high-end store in Chongqing.

It’s so high-end that, after taking white-glove delivery of their Ethan Allen sofa that’s jointly assembled in China and North Carolina with the help of migrant Mexican workers, the wife in one family that’s profiled in “Joined at the Hip” drove her German manufactured BMW—while wearing her Burberry shawl and Louis Vuitton purse—to a Wal-Mart to purchase chicken feet imported from the United States. The family explained that their new sofa and top-of-the-line, American-made refrigerator cost a lot of money (but they could afford it, because the husband worked as an executive with a motorcycle manufacturer) and would probably be handed down to their grandchildren.

And about those grandchildren—school children in China are taught English and computer literacy at an early age, so they can all be prepared for the fierce competition that’s needed to keep the good jobs in China—jobs that would normally have been performed in the United States.

Koppel reveals that the link between the United States and China is so strong that the two have become each others greatest rivals and biggest business partners. “The Fast Lane” examines the influence of the auto industry in China, with at least 9 million cars being added yearly and the many changes that come with this influx.

The final segment, “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” reveals the pollution that the many pollution-spewing plants in China have created and ways that a corrupt government tries to get around making environmental changes.

The two-DVD set also includes a 20-page viewer’s guide, an exclusive interview with Koppel and extras that “take the educational experience beyond the screen.” If you want to learn more about just what “made in China” really means, look for The People’s Republic of Capitalism, which is available on DVD and Blu-ray June 2.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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