I had to giggle, perhaps inappropriately, a couple of times while watching the Ted Koppel documentary The People's Republic of Capitalism. Koppel is no doubt going to catch flak from the right (as he consistently does), with his thesis of a New World Order and One World interconnected economies, something he goes to great lengths to show both the pluses and minuses of (for both the U.S. and China). But I had to wonder if perhaps even ardent bleeding heart liberals were going to take Koppel to task for at least a couple of awkward moments, as in an early episode when he more or less informs a young Chinese assembly line worker that she's getting paid squat and then, in a sort of arrogantly dismissive aside (albeit in an affably joking manner), suggests she go into news reporting where she can pull down some respectable bling. For the rest of us stuck squarely somewhere in between Dick Cheney and Al Sharpton The People's Republic of Capitalism makes an extremely cogent case that the die is cast, economically speaking ("get used to it," Koppel intones, putting a nice period to any subsequent debate), and that the United States and China are interlocked forevermore in sometimes unexpected and downright strange ways.
There's probably no better all around special feature reporter than Koppel, and his expertise is probably no better shown to advantage than in the four episodes that comprise this documentary that first aired on Discovery Channel. As he discusses in the extra feature, a bonus 30 minute interview held in his Maryland home, Koppel has been tied to China both personally and professionally for over 40 years. His experience with the vast country predated his journey there with Nixon by several years, his son was born in Hong Kong, and his daughter Andrea, becoming a reporter and producer of some note herself, manned CNN's China Bureau for several years.
The People's Republic of Capitalism plays to Koppel's strengths, his inerrant ability to find perfect and personal examples of vast issues and frankly arcane theories (does anybody really understand "macroeconomics"?). In the first episode, for example, Koppel traces the circuitous connections between Wal-Mart, Briggs and Stratton and Ethan Allen furniture, both stateside and in China itself. We see displaced American workers who nonetheless extol the virtues of the "pay less" mentality at Sam Walton's superstore, even after being told that their consumerism there probably helped lead to their joblessness. Koppel and his research team find one perfectly amazing example, as an ornate Ethan Allen couch, partially assembled in both the United States and China, literally touches several lives on both sides of the ocean, and Koppel is there at every turn interviewing people.
Some of the other folks he comes across have sadder stories, as a rural woman married to an alcoholic farmer, a woman who is sending her only daughter away to the "big city" (the entire documentary is centered around the Chinese megalopolis Chonqing) for schooling, against her husband's wishes. The woman makes a few dollars a week transporting hundreds of pounds of crops on her back to market, and the school ends up costing her about half of that.
In another episode, Koppel examines the kind of funny explosion of cars in inner city China, a country long associated with the bicycle. We see scores of fender benders and follow a portable Liberty Mutual van that actually goes to the accident scene and offers settlements right there. It's American capitalism in a totally different guise, and it's fascinating to watch. (Some fender benders are "settled" with a quick and discreet payoff between the parties, without even any insurance folks getting involved). This shows off China's burgeoning technological prowess commingling with a longheld, more agrarian face-to-face ethos and it's frankly something that some Americans could learn from. Even what looks to be a pretty bad rollover accident leaves the relatively unharmed occupants of the vehicles not threatening any lawsuits.
At times Koppel is a bit too "cute" for his own good, as in the quick cutting of an assembly line's drudgery set to Koppel's ever hastening repeated voiceover "snap it on, plug it in, check it out, send it off." And in another moment, when Koppel is interviewing a Chinese-American AIDS researcher now in China away from his family, I had to wonder if it was mere coincidence that Koppel's deep blue dress shirt was exactly (and I mean exactly) the same shade as the backlit beakers and other pharmaceutical paraphernalia in the background. But these are passing qualms in what really is a brilliantly written and shot piece, one that manages to weave together so many disparate strands that it will probably have a lot of viewers rethinking their own biases about a global economy that, like it or not, is already here and is obviously here to stay.
As Koppel mentions in the bonus interview, it's staggering to think that a mere 40 years ago there was virtually no contact between China and the United States. Koppel recounts having to wheel a huge van equipped with a portable antenna to which he would hook up a television in order to monitor mainland broadcasts back in the late 1960s. It was the only way he could glean information about what was actually going on there (or at least what the Communist Government wanted broadcast). Since Nixon's epochal trip there, markets have opened and our economic fates have been merged as probably neither Nixon nor Mao ever envisioned. With China now holding huge amounts of American debt, we seem to be on the verge of another economic precipice with perhaps no clear markers to delineate the way forward. Koppel makes a compelling case that continued contact, despite its travails on both sides, is the only rational approach. The People's Republic of Capitalism is a thoroughly engaging course showing what that engagement has meant already, and what it may portend for all of our futures.