The following commentary was written by Christopher Earls on March 6, 2015. Mr. Earls is an intern in the Carter Center’s China office.
One hundred million views in its first 24-hours, two hundred million and counting within its first week: Under the Dome, a new documentary detailing China’s air pollution crisis, is now the focus of Chinese public and online discussion. Chai Jing, a prominent Chinese journalist and former CCTV reporter, released her self-financed documentary on Feb. 28, with a reception nothing short of astounding. Although Chai is not the first to discuss China’s smog, her film is imbued with personal, emotional anecdotes that resonate with many Chinese. Her approach, while not wholly scientific, is now raising a scale of public awareness and dialogue about air quality unprecedented in China. Environmentalists hail this documentary as a catalyst for policy change, comparing Chai’s effort to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962); both credited for breathing life into the environmental movement. Albeit no formal statements of support from government officials, state-owned media outlets—including the poplar People’s Daily, which initially debuted the film on their website until it vanished Wednesday without explanation, showed tremendous encouragement over the past week for discussing Chai’s work and its consequences; a telling sign of high-level Communist Party approval. While some provide criticism, most seem to come to consensus: clean air is in everyone’s best interest.
That China’s air quality is far from desirable comes as no surprise. What this documentary achieves is a shift in how Chinese view their pollution: Foreign Policy claims, “For the average Chinese, air pollution is no longer a topic of academic inquiry but rather a tangible issue with real, significant consequences.” The same article reports that shortly after its release, Under the Dome became the most searched term on Baidu, a popular Chinese search-engine, and received 580,000 shares from users on China’s social media platform Weibo. Chinese netizens shared sentiments of support for Chai Jing’s message. One viral comment reads, “I don’t need China to be number one. Can we slow down our economic development and really deal with pollution?” Other online comments echo Chai’s words, emphasizing a greater need for more participation in politics and transparency in the fight to reduce smog, with an overall hopeful sentiment for the future.
Perhaps this optimistic sentiment is why state media has proactively supported Chai Jing’s documentary, in what Foreign Policy calls a “coordinated campaign.” The article reports that People’s Daily, generally considered a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, ran a special feature about the film on their website, published an op-ed in support of the Chai’s call for more effective environmental governance, and shared the video via Weibo, meanwhile the nationalist, state-run newspaper Global Times defended Chai’s criticism of state-owned enterprises. Censors were ordered to “halt promoting [the video] and to regulate online “public opinion” concerning it” only after it went viral, according China Digital Times. Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, was quoted in an NPR article that he believes “one reason such a hard-hitting film, that touched on deeply rooted problems, was allowed to be widely disseminated is its positive direction, which gives people hope and confidence.” Ma sees the film as a “wake-up call for China,” comparing to prominent past environmentally focused works. The release of the documentary comes days before the start of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (colloquially referred to as the Two Sessions), where conversations weighing GDP growth with environmental protection and climate change are sure to take place.
However, Chai Jing is not without her critics. Chinese netizens panned Chai on number of issues, ranging from complaints about the documentary’s content to personal attacks on Chai’s life choices. On social media, some complain Chai simply did not dig deep enough. Common critiques include want for proper scientific backing and authoritative analysis; a lack of teeth to hold the government accountable (Chai only indicates pollution is a consequence of China’s rapid development); and subjective bias for “reflecting the interests and viewpoints of the urban middle class,” and not giving sufficient attention to the working class, who depend more on high-polluting jobs. Others simply call Chai a hypocrite for giving birth to her child in the United States. They see her as disingenuously caring for China’s problems. Yet, critics still seem to agree that the document raises an important point: action must be taken to combat China’s haze. Foreign Policy quotes Chai as saying, “to put it simply, everyone wants to have clean air. What is a social consensus? There is no consensus stronger than this one. That’s why I’m optimistic.”
Even though China’s censors now regulate online discussion and proliferation of Chai Jing’s documentary, the national conversation is underway. Under the Dome, in a matter of days, captured the nation and pushed air quality control to the front of China’s public agenda. It is unlikely that officials will be able to overlook this topic during the Two Sessions now that there is mounting pressure for a policy solution. Chai, along with hundreds of millions of others, may have a literal breath of fresh air sooner than expected.
A full version of the Under the Dome with English subtitles can be found here.
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