Beijing Water

“Under the Dome” finds its limits

A smog documentary that went viral in China over the weekend and riveted the nation with its TED Talks meets Al Gore blend of compelling data and engaging instruction, managed to both survive China’s censors and get “the chop”.

The viral success of China’s new smog sensation, “Under the Dome”  an independent documentary that takes the government to task for the country’s pollution woes represents a remarkable feat in a political climate where censorship and persecution has intensified in recent years to keep dissent and civil unrest in check.

Self-financed and close to two hours in length, “Under the Dome,” by acclaimed, former state news anchor and investigative reporter, Chai Jing, attracted more than 155 million views within days of its release online on Saturday, February 28, and even garnered support from Chen Jining, China’s new minister of environmental protection, who compared Chai’s film to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” — a book credited with igniting America’s contemporary environmental movement and awakening public environmental consciousness.

A health scare around the birth of her daughter, diagnosed with a tumor, serves as the impetus Chai uses to explore — through affecting, measured presentation, high-impact visuals, data and interviews — the daunting scale of China’s air pollution problem. She doesn’t shy away from blaming the country’s coal and oil industries and their toothless oversight by environmental protection bodies, lenient penalties that fail to curb polluters, and lax to non-existent enforcement of environmental regulations, as well as ongoing subsidies from state-run banks that serve as drip-feed for inefficient and dirty industries.

Although these allegations aren’t new, Chai’s forthright recommendation for a less government, more market correction to China’s ills is a significantly bold move given Beijing’s current impatience for critical voices and sponsorship of an economy described as anything but environmentally friendly. [See: Distorted economy dooms China to an “airpocalypse”].

Writes Liu Qin for China Dialogue:

In Chai’s narrative, the problem of smog can be solved if government reduces unnecessary intervention and allows markets to be the primary allocator of resources. The role of government is essential to set policy and enforce laws, the former news anchor says, but so is a fair and competitive market to help spur innovative solutions to pollution.

Although, “Under the Dome” was not immediately banned — which many attribute to Chai’s deft packaging of the documentary and her resonance as a concerned parent — its reverberations in the public sphere have nevertheless received a “whittling”. China Digital Times reports media promoting the documentary was halted and online “public opinion” regarding it regulated after the powerful state-run news agency Xinhua took down articles, including a debate about the documentary they had published themselves and a supportive text message sent to Chai by the minister of environmental protection, suggesting that various media outlets not use them. It is in this way — by way of “whittling” — that Chai’s momentum has in effect been given “the chop” in advance of China’s annual parliamentary meeting this week, known as the “two sessions”. Writes CDT:

As for the Two Sessions, which will start tomorrow [March 5], this is an unprecedented display of popular sentiment beforehand. According to the Propaganda Department’s thinking in years past, during the Two Sessions news is to focus entirely on the meetings themselves, and can absolutely not stray onto other issues. But now, because the foundation of the masses huddled “under the dome” have become too powerful, it’s no longer practical for them to just take something away. That’s why their only guarantee was to “chop” [Chai Jing], to whittle her down to size.

The Chinese character “to chop,” 削 (xiao), is a compound of “knife” 刀 and the phonetic element 肖 xiao (to resemble). It means “to make small” or “whittle.” In the northeastern dialect of Mandarin, it means “to give someone the chop” (i.e. to silence or cut off).

Meanwhile, for as long as China’s economy continues to operate under perverse incentives, so too will its environmental crisis persist. In “Distorted economy dooms China to an ‘airpocalypse‘”, Probe International’s Patricia Adams argued neither technology (nor public support) is keeping China from cleaning up but rather the lack of a credible regulatory regime that makes polluters pay and rewards investors to innovate.

For every national or global environmental threat, she says, there will be local victims who feel the consequences first and most painfully. It is these citizen frontlines, she says, that must be empowered — through the right to know, the legal and political tools, and the security to exercise their rights — who will hold those who would destroy their environment to account and reward those whose innovations are sustainable in an economy governed by the rule of law. [See: Saving China’s environment: Give power to the people]

To view an English translation of Under the Dome, see here

“Under the Dome” takes it name from the Stephen King novel that traps a small American town beneath an invisible, impenetrable dome with no explanation.

Update — March 6, 2015: “Under the Dome” has been pulled from major Chinese online video sites by order of the government, according to people familiar with the directive, reports the Wall Street Journal. Viewers trying to watch “Under the Dome” saw error messages and broken links. For more, see: Pollution documentary pulled from Chinese websites

Update — March 6, 2015: An administrative employee of China Business News has been suspended for leaking a “secret propaganda directive” instructing media to halt coverage of “Under the Dome”, reports the Financial Times. For more, see: China newspaper suspends leaker of smog film propaganda directive

Update March 11, 2015: Police detain activists in a northern China city who wore facemasks and carried anti–air pollution signs blaming poor government management for the country’s smog problems. For more, see: Netizens voice support for detained smog protesters in Xi’an

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