Can a Documentary Change the Course of China's 'War on Pollution'?


Just after the Chinese New Year – and only a few days before China’s “two sessions” meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference –  a new documentary has caught fire on China’s internet. The film, titled “Under the Dome,” investigates China’s pollution problem, providing visceral evidence of the inescapable problem of smog. The documentary, released on Saturday, had over 147 million views on the Chinese video site Tencent by Monday evening. It’s available on YouTube, with a rough English translation.

“Under the Dome” was produced by Chai Jing, formerly a journalist at the state-run China Central Television (CCTV). Chai explains how she came to take a personal interest in the pollution issue after the birth of her daughter. Before then, she had never paid much attention to the smog; afterward, she was frightened as to what the pervasive exposure to pollution would mean for her child’s health. The resulting documentary has been compared to Silent Spring, the book by environmental activist Rachel Carson often credited with jump-starting the U.S. environmental movement.

That comparison has also been made by no less a personage than China’s environmental minister, Chen Jining. Chen said he was “particularly pleased” about the documentary and the way it was “promoting public awareness of environmental health issues.” Indeed, the wide-spread promotion of the documentary by Chinese state media signals that the government sees value in the film. The website of People’s Daily reposted the film and also published an interview with Chai Jing. China Daily published its own feature on Chai and her “crusade against pollution.”

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The support from state media is especially interesting given that the film dips a toe into the dangerous waters of public activism, something China’s government is generally quick to censure. In the film, Chai predicts that China’s people will grow tired of a poisoned environment:

“One day, tens of thousands of ordinary folks will say no. They will say they are not satisfied, they don’t want to wait and they don’t want to evade responsibility. I have to stand out and do something, and I will do it right now, right here, in the very moment where I am. I am the change.”

The above paragraph, in the context of virtually any other political subject (democracy, constitutionalism, human rights) would have gotten the film scrubbed from China’s internet. But “Under the Dome” is still readily available online, although China Digital Times reports that Chinese censors have ordered media outlets not to “further promote” the documentary and to carefully “regulate” public opinion.

Chai’s film argues that the top leadership’s current “war on pollution” is not working. Rather than being embarrassed and angry at the revelation, China’s leaders apparently hope the public outcry will help them drive through more meaningful reforms. In this sense, the timing of the release (just before the NPC and CPPCC meetings) is telling; environmental issues will be in the spotlight as Beijing sets the agenda for 2015.

One reason censors may have let Chai’s film stand: It turns a harsh spotlight on the very state-owned energy giants that China’s top leaders are trying to reform. Chai points out that China’s state-owned oil companies set their own standards for production, despite protests from the Ministry of Environmental Protection. She also points to the role of steel mills and coal plants in exacerbating pollution problems by ignoring environmental regulations to increase their profits.

The film also provides a detailed look at how powerless China’s environmental bureau really is. In one telling scene, MEP officials are flatly told they have the duty to investigate for broken regulations but not the power to do so. It’s no wonder Minister Chen was elated by the film; in effect, it provides an impassioned argument for giving his ministry more power.

One piece in Business Spectator called “Under the Dome” the “film that is going to change China.” If public outcry makes it easier for Beijing to push through reforms strengthening the MEP and curtailing environmental abuses by state-owned enterprises, Chai’s film could indeed go down in history as China’s Silent Spring. 

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