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Documentary on China’s Air Pollution Spurs National Debate, Government Censorship

Alexis Petru headshotWords by Alexis Petru
New Activism
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Last week, a biting documentary about China’s air pollution problem went viral in the country, garnering more than 300 million views – the equivalent of more than a fifth of China’s population watching it, according to the Guardian. But while the general population has embraced the film, “Under The Dome,” reaction from the government has been mixed.

On Friday, Chinese video websites deleted the documentary, under orders from state censors, the New York Times reported. At the same time the video was disappearing offline, government officials were announcing ambitious goals to curb air pollution and increase renewable energy capacity, according to PV Magazine.

“Under The Dome,” which takes its name from the pervasive smog that envelopes many Chinese cities, is “part science lecture, part investigative exposé and part memoir,” the New York Times said. In the 104-minute documentary, Chai Jing, former reporter for state-run China Central Television, walks viewers through the science of air pollution, shows examples of the government’s failure to enforce existing regulations, and offers success stories of cities like London and Los Angeles that have dramatically improved their air quality.

The film is being compared to “An Inconvenient Truth” – for both its style and the national debate it has inspired – but with “Under The Dome,” Chai seems to have struck a deeper emotional chord with Chinese viewers than Al Gore was able to accomplish. While Gore’s documentary seemed to galvanize support around climate action in the immediate years after its release, its effect has worn off, as policymakers have failed to enact robust climate legislation and the debate on climate science has reared its ugly head again.

Chai’s film, however, centers on the impact of an environmental problem that really hits home with viewers: children’s health. Chai tells the audience that despite her work as a journalist requiring her to travel to some of China’s most polluted cities, she didn’t become concerned about the effects of poor air quality until she became pregnant and found out her unborn daughter had a tumor. While the tumor turned out to benign and her newborn daughter survived the surgery to remove it, Chai couldn’t help but wonder if there was a connection between Beijing’s smog and her daughter’s tumor, or if the air pollution would have any negative effects on her child’s health.

“Chinese people have a really sensitive spot for children, so it’s a very powerful message,” Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on China at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, told the Guardian.

Not surprisingly, “Under The Dome” stirred up its share of controversy. A few days after the documentary made its online debut, government propaganda officials released a directive that ordered Chinese news organizations not to report on the film and told video websites not to play the documentary on their homepages, even though they could keep the video online, the New York Times reported.

But the fact that the Chinese government even allowed “Under The Dome” to stay online for nearly a week – coupled with Chai’s former employment at the state-run TV station – led to rumors that government officials must have had some involvement with the film. Some cynics even accused Chai of creating propaganda, saying she released the film to drum up concern about air pollution just days before government leaders made grand statements about their commitment to protecting the environment at last week’s annual parliamentary meeting, CNN reported. Chai did acknowledge that she sent some of her interview material to government agencies for feedback but says she completely financed the film herself, according to the New York Times.

And then, on Friday, amid swirling speculation and continued public debate, the Communist Party’s central propaganda department ordered Chinese video websites to take down “Under The Dome.” The following day, China’s new minister of environmental protection Chen Jining – who had praised the documentary earlier in the week  and compared it to Rachel Carson’s seminal “Silent Spring” book – made no mention of the film during a press conference and ignored the raised hands of foreign journalists interested in finding out more about the video’s censorship, CNN reported.

And yet, as Chinese websites were pulling the documentary offline, President Xi Jinping was telling legislators at the National People’s Congress that he would “give an iron hand to any polluters in this smog-choked country,” CNN reported. The day before, government officials made even bolder announcements: China’s premiere Li Keqiang told parliament that the country would aim for zero percent growth in coal consumption, while the nation’s top energy official promised to boost solar capacity up to 100 gigawatts this year, from 26.5 gigawatts in 2014, according to PV Magazine.

So, what are we to make of the fallout from “Under The Dome?” The video was watched millions of times and deeply affected Chinese citizens worried about the health of their children. But the government’s contradictory reaction – somewhat supporting, tolerating and then censoring the film while seeming to make strides to curb pollution – leaves us wondering what will happen next in China’s air pollution crisis.

"Smog is like any other problem in China -- dig it too deep and you touch the issue of political system," Chinese news commentator Yao Bo told CNN. "The video doesn't do that, but comments on it had started to question the system."

And as more and more citizens question the system and make their desire for clean air known, the Chinese government won’t be able to simply censor them; they will have to address the pollution problem.

Image credit: Flickr/Nicolo Lazzati

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru headshotAlexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

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