The only shame regarding Ted Koppel’s documentaries is that more people don’t see them. This may be the unfortunate fate of Koppel’s uncompromising four-part examination of China, which eschews dramatic bells and whistles and thus seems increasingly out of step with Discovery’s youth-oriented mandate, allowing a good story — here, Beijing’s officially orchestrated policy of economic dominion — to speak for itself. Informative and entertaining, Koppel gives the lie to the canard that foreign news can’t be interesting. Indeed, for blue-collar workers whose jobs are being exported, it should be required viewing.
“The People’s Republic of Capitalism” could hardly be more timely. Not only does it come a month before China hosts the Olympics, but it follows the devastating earthquake that recently struck the Sichuan province. Although the reporting was done earlier, the project has been updated to reflect its impact.
Bringing his central thesis home without much subtlety, Koppel begins in Missouri, where middle-aged workers attend a job fair, their careers having been outsourced. China, as Koppel notes, represents a “cheap, reliable source of labor,” and the net effect of that can be seen in the blank faces of Americans “caught in the backwash of the global marketplace.”
Yet if the Chinese feel any remorse for their role in creating that suction, it’s not evident. The refrain, rather, is consistent: That a rich, powerful country like the U.S. has no place trying to deny the Chinese people happiness.
Koppel extensively tours China to expose a country pursuing economic expansion with well-coordinated zeal — partnering with Western companies eager to access its labor while observing, learning from and copying them to develop its own competitive products.
The second hour provides insight into the evolving Chinese culture, which seems to hinge on allowing workers to blow off steam so that they can continue feeding the country’s economic engine. That includes surprising acceptance of gay clubs and karaoke bars ranging “from gaudy to tacky to sleazy,” though as Koppel notes, there’s a line here: Gay bars, sure; gay pride parades — or anything else that might be perceived as political dissent — forget it.
The third hour, which also hits home in light of soaring U.S. gas prices, delves into China’s burgeoning car culture and expanded infrastructure (Koppel wryly notes that the woman ferrying him about “drives like a maniac”). The final segment contemplates the potential costs — to the environment as well as to the West — of China’s determination to lift 300 million people out of poverty.
Since leaving “Nightline,” Koppel, producer Tom Bettag and their team have consistently aimed higher than anything else in television journalism by addressing matters of complexity and substance — examining Iran, “the long war” against terrorism, civil liberties, cancer and the stressed-to-breaking prison system. As admirable as the work has been, it stands in depressing contrast to most of what passes for TV news.