Is the ultimate dome preventing China’s skies from clearing a political one?
The phenomenal popularity of “Under the Dome” — the self-financed documentary about smog in China by former state news anchor and investigative reporter, Chai Jing — set China on its ear for the best part of a week after the film was released online on February 28. More than 200 million views later, the nationwide conversation Chai’s “Dome” had ignited in a matter of days was shut down just as quickly by censors, followed shortly after by the documentary’s disappearance in plain sight from major Chinese video websites by order of the government.
In the film’s absence, however, the conversation it began has raised questions China’s leaders cannot so easily disappear. The following is a round-up of some of the best analysis and criticism to emerge since “Under the Dome” was taken offline.
The film’s “pretense”
[Chai] runs to the United States and to England, to shoot and ask questions, presenting their practices and successes and lamenting that China isn’t doing the same. She pretends Weibo is a place for free speech. She looks up at the blue planet, anticipating the system reform prescribed by a high-level official. She tallies all the sources of pollution except the biggest one. It is the same with those officials in the film. They are able to trace pollution to the energy monopoly, but they see no ills in the political monopoly. It’s not that they don’t see, of course. They are feigning they don’t see. Or they will be in prison or sent packing. But as everyone pretends, what’s the difference between their feigning and the faking of vehicle emission certificates?
The pretense Yaxue refers to is the notion that everyone is on the same page when it comes to ending pollution. Yes. The Chinese government is very serious about taking action to curb pollution but it is more committed to preserving its one-party rule and that system of governance, says Yaxue, represents the “ultimate dome over China”:
… the film no doubt is a milestone, a powerful bugle call, for the simple reasons that two hundred millions of Chinese have watched it, and that even though the party is able to spirit it away, it cannot efface, with a click of the delete key, the smog cloaking China and the pollution scarring the land. Citizens should do everything they can […] to contribute to a better environment, but what they can do is purposefully restricted by the system, and they must understand that the political blue sky is the real blue sky …
Chai Jing gives us shocking account of how laws and regulations have not been enforced. As outsiders, we are shocked that China’s petroleum standards are set by the industry itself, and the environmental authority didn’t even have a vote. Chai Jing talked about how the EU, Canada, Australia, Mexico, South Korea and Japan formulate their respective standards, how it is a result of multilateral participation, consultation and voting. But she didn’t point out what these six political systems have in common: they are all democracies in which each participating party has independent power safeguarded by the rule of law, and the powers check each other to reach optimal solutions through procedures established in similar manners. Chai Jing’s film seems to share this ideal of governance. But does the Communist Party share it?
The right to know, the right to participate, the right to sue
In tackling pollution, the most important lessons China can learn from the developed countries are the public’s right to know through a free press, civic participation through freedom of association, and environmental litigation through an independent judiciary. But Xi Jinping’s government has been strangling the media and the internet through harsher censorship, and they have made it clear that “governing the country according to the law” must be led by the Party. As for civic movements, including NGOs, we have been witnessing a steady elimination of some of the most inspirational organizations of civil society through the persecution of the New Citizens Movement, Transition Institute, Liren Library, Yirenping, and independent candidates for people’s representatives. Breaking up a monopoly in a certain industry will not drive away the smog. To bring back the blue skies over China, the political monopoly must be lifted too.
China’s large number of state-owned enterprises propped up by subsidies and government-granted monopoly rights
Monopoly inevitably leads to corruption. The documentary told us that “among the 36 heavy industries in China, 22 are suffering from serious overcapacity.” But instead of being eliminated by the free market, the state is propping them up with large subsidies. In the film, Liu Shiyu, the deputy head of the People’s Bank of China, the nation’s central bank, described them as zombie companies. “They consume a large amount of financial resources, they bring unpredictable risk to our real economy, but they are still expanding.” Alas, this is also a good portrait of the regime. ~ Chang Ping [See: Why Has This Environmental Documentary Gone Viral on China’s Internet? and China: Smog as a Political Analogy]
Chai Jing tells us, the U. S. auto companies also complained when the government tried to raise emission standards, and allowing competition from foreign companies forced American auto makers to keep pace. “Weren’t you afraid of hurting the national auto industry?” Chai Jing asks an American environmental official. “Environmental protection is not a burden,” she is told. “It’s innovation. Protecting a backward industry is no way to promote innovation. The government’s role is to set the standards and ensure fair competition in the market. You win the market through fair competition.” ~ Yaxue Cao [See: Under the China Dome — A Reality Check]
To be sure, China has just established law for “joint action” in pollution litigation. In an overview of China’s class action law, King & Wood Mallesons points out that, “the recent amendment [August 2012] to the Civil Procedure Law of the P.R.C. (“CPL”) added provisions for certain joint litigation in areas of public interest related to ‘pollution to the environment’ and ‘damage [to the] legitimate rights and interests of consumers at large. In these cases of public interest litigation, however, only certain ‘designated institutions may institute proceedings.’ It is believed that for environmental public interest litigation going forward that entity will be the All-China Environmental Federation (ACEF).” In other words, the victims cannot sue; only this organization connected with the government may sue. Why don’t I just call this law a fake law? ~ Yaxue Cao [See: Under the China Dome — A Reality Check]
Professor Wu Qiang of Tsinghua University wrote, “In the past ten years, although the Property Rights Law was passed, private property owners are still unable to obtain effective protection. It is difficult for private property owners or environmentalists to resist pollution by asserting their property rights, or to make claims and demand compensation for rights infringement by polluters. The issue of private property has been debated non-stop ever since the economic opening and reform began. As long as this issue is not dealt with, not included in the civil code, and not recognized by the Constitution and safeguarded by an independent judicial system, it will be difficult to curb environmental pollution from the approach of civil law, and the environmental movement will not be able to take root and grow strong.” ~ Yaxue Cao [See: Under the China Dome — A Reality Check]
Smog, not fog
Smog was already very serious ten years ago, but it did not make people so uneasy as it does today. As Chai Jing points out, that’s because we didn’t call it smog; we called it fog, a lovely thing for Chinese whose literature is imbued with poetic descriptions of fogginess. But Chai Jing avoided telling her audience that the concept of PM2.5 was brought to the Chinese public by the U. S. Embassy. It monitored Beijing’s air quality and publicized the data every day, and that’s how the Chinese public learned the truth about the air. In Chai Jing’s film, China’s environmental officials are portrayed very positively, but back then, they protested repeatedly, accusing the American embassy of violating diplomatic protocols. Meanwhile, the state media fanned patriotism, saying our “air quality data cannot be dictated by others.” Thanks to the American embassy’s “violation,” we know we have smog, not fog. ~ Chang Ping [See: China: Smog as a Political Analogy]
China’s class divide
In China’s Real Inconvenient Truth: Its Class Divide, Rachel Lu writes:
Chai Jing explained the root causes of air pollution that has ravaged so much of China in the past few years. But there’s a sharp class angle to the pollution question that Chai’s documentary did not engage. While smog is the most visible problem afflicting the middle class in mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai, China’s other half — the rural and poor population — often suffer a nasty pollution paradox: They face health risks from their air and water, but also depend on polluting industries for their livelihoods. … At one point in “Under the Dome,” Chai showed a map of northern China, with smog from coal-burning industrial plants in Hebei province drifting easily to Beijing. “The air has no walls,” Chai appealed to the audience. “We are all breathing the same air, suffering the same fate.” That’s not entirely true.
In fact, it is not that people have adapted to dictatorship, but that dictatorship has been damaging people’s independent thinking. “I don’t think there is any information that suggests that exposing your child to air pollution is going to help them to adapt,” Professor Edward Lawrence Avol at the University of Southern California told Chai Jing. “If you expose them on day one, they lose some function. If you expose them on day two, they don’t lose the same amount, but that’s not because they have adapted, but because they have already lost that function.” ~ Chang Ping [See: China: Smog as a Political Analogy]
The journey of Chai Jing’s documentary is a microcosm of the party’s own embattled state. It was premiered by the party’s mouthpiece, but at the same time, the party’s propaganda department was keeping vigilant. Its first edict said, “All media outlets are required not to hype Under the Dome, and must control and adjust online opinion.” “Control and adjust” reminded me of a switch that can be turned on or off, dimming the brightness at will. The blinding light beam of the film was dimmed down to a kerosene lamp in less than 48 hours and then turned off completely. The party’s control is a must; the party’s will is absolute. It is so for the film, and it is so for everything in China. Don’t be surprised if the party launches a smear campaign against Chai Jing tomorrow. ~ Yaxue Cao [See: Under the China Dome — A Reality Check]