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China’s wave of change, upheaval

Times Staff Writer

For his latest Discovery Channel documentary, Ted Koppel has tackled modern China: a true meeting of a heavyweight journalist and one of the world’s biggest stories.

The thesis, carried in the name of the four-parter, “The People’s Republic of Capitalism,” is that a robust, fast-moving, often disruptive brand of free enterprise is on the road to doing what communism failed to do: support China’s mammoth population.

Koppel’s focus is Chongqinq, a city of 13.5 million with a forest of high-rise construction cranes and Las Vegas-like use of night lighting that makes other boom cities look like villages. American companies are trampling themselves to set up factories to exploit the cheap labor and high productivity.

Chinese urbanites may be getting rich, but in the countryside, where the vast majority of Chinese live, the old ways and subsistence living persist. Koppel explores the tension between the old and new, focusing on a peasant family with an industrious mother, drunken father and ambitious daughter.

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The first installment has the superb production values expected of Koppel and his crew. The visuals, the script and the pacing are first-rate.

The material, however, has a plowed-over feel to it, making it more of a star-turn for Koppel than anything fresh. The approach is that the global marketplace has joined the U.S. and China in an economic marriage of convenience. That’s hardly new.

Naturally, any talk of low wages and low prices leads to Wal-Mart, and the Koppel crew makes the trek both in the U.S. and China. Again, not new.

Obligatory visits are made to U.S. plants and their satellites in China. American workers talk of being fired as their jobs are outsourced to China.

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A 61-year-old worker canned from the Briggs & Stratton plant in Rolla, Mo., talks of his frustrating search for a new job. “They tell me I’m over-qualified,” he says. “That’s a way of saying, ‘You’re too old.’ ”

Koppel is not Bill Moyers or Michael Moore in his approach. He doesn’t find any villains. Moving jobs to China and elsewhere may cost some American jobs, but it also allows American companies to stay in business, saving even more jobs, Koppel decides.

The second episode breaks away from the global-economy template and explores the cultural upheaval wrought by China’s economic boom. It has the sense of, well, discovery, that the first episode does not.

Koppel’s cameras visit the brothels, gay bars and expansive nightspots that are part of the “new” China. Karaoke bars range from “gaudy to tacky to sleazy.”

All of this in a country where the official rulers demand a rigid Puritanism -- unless there’s a buck to be made.

So does all this economic and lifestyle freedom inevitably lead to more political freedom in the land of the Tiananmen Square massacre? Not necessarily. Here the former “Nightline” host is at his best, the gentle but persistent questioner, poking at the seeming contradictions in modern China.

With the Beijing Olympics approaching, this is the season for China stories. But long after the last medal is bestowed, the ever-tightening ties between the U.S. and China will remain.

“Love it or hate it, our economic future seems irrevocably linked,” Koppel tells us. “It’s a reality, get used to it.”

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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‘The People’s Republic of Capitalism’

Where: Discovery Channel

When: 10 tonight, Thursday, Friday and Saturday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)


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