THE CHINA HUSTLE
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jed Rothstein
Screenwriter: Jed Rothstein
Cast: Dan David, Matthew Wiechert, Carson Block, James Chanos, Soren Aandahl, Maj Soueidnn
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 1/23/18
Opens: March 30, 2018
History has judged capitalism to be the winner. With the exception of a handful of countries—Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba—all follow the tenets of capitalism whether they announce themselves as capitalists or not. And theoretically, capitalism is the most form of economy that has integrity; that is, if you do good for others, make the products that people actually want, you will get rich. However there is another way of looking at this: if you get away with stealing from the people, you can also get rich. Or as Balzac said “Behind every fortune there is a great crime.” The latter opinion gets cinematic treatment in Jed Rothstein’s “The China Hustle.”
When I visited China in 1985 the country was a lot different from the way it is now. The street in Shanghai that was to resemble New York’s Fifth Avenue was a dark and dismal place, its stores pathetic haunts with shoddy goods, but at least the Chinese people were able to afford them. Tipping was not permitted. China was Communist in word and deed. Flash forward to 2018 and China has become the second largest economy, threatening to knock the U.S. off its pedestal as the world’s leading producer. The country that houses 1.3 billion people calls itself Communist, but though Mao’s portrait remains in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Chinese people according to some are the most eager in the world to amass great wealth.
Still, some companies are shady at best. While the Chinese government forbids foreigners from owning stock in its corporations, leave it to those in America with the most vivid profit-making ideas to find a way around the law. The technique described in Rothstein’s documentary, called the reverse merger, is for Chinese companies to creep into the American stock exchanges like Trojan horses. When an American company is about to go belly-up but is still listed on our stock exchanges, a Chinese company pulls a reverse merger. This means that the foreign company enters the American one like a dybbuk, merging with a dying American corporation while operating in China. Hedge fund managers and financial companies would solicit investment from rich Americans, using the ecstatic balance sheets to convince all that huge profits can be made. Who needs Bernie Madoff when so many other clever capitalists can do the same?
There is one trouble: some Chinese companies vastly overstate their revenues and prospective futures even though they are heading south just like the defunct American businesses. It’s only the balance sheets that are raves. When some crafty Americans visiting China took note, discovering that the factories in no way enjoyed the traffic they claimed, they could have blown the whistle to expose them. Instead, these would-be muckrakers, aware that the bad news is around the corner and that the stocks would soon race for the basement, they sold the stocks short, a technique that allows investors to borrow stock from the brokers. Then, when the stock goes way down, return the stock to the brokers by repurchasing at the lower price. (See Wikipedia for a full explanation of “selling short” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short_(finance).
Rothstein’s doc hands the stage to people who have profited by this scam. As one leading financial manager states, “There are no good guys here. Not even me.” The film does not overstay its welcome at just 84 minutes and is reasonably easy to understand unless you’re a North Korean and have never heard the term “stock market.” Its editing is snazzy, meaning lots of bells and whistles such as you’d find in an action drama. It serves as ample warning: caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. If any two words summarize the lessons taught, they are: Trust nobody. Do not take expert opinions except with a grain of salt, as Bernie Madoff’s investors learned the hard way.
Do I have to warn readers that Donald J. Trump should not be trusted? He recently pushed through and signed legislation that he said would deregulate 70% of the corporate world, as though he never heard of the market crash of 2008. If there’s anything that could be said of “The China Hustle” it’s that its lessons have not been absorbed by people who should learn from them lest they wind up selling apples on the street to make a living.
Unrated. 84 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B