In Reversal, Chinese Government Bans Pollution Exposé

CREDIT: screenshot/Under the Dome, YouTube

Over the course of a weekend in early March, more than 175 million people in China tuned into a highly personalized and unprecedentedly science-driven documentary about the country’s debilitating smog problem. Produced by former Chinese news anchor and environmental reporter Chai Jing, the 104-minute “Under the Dome” caught the Chinese public at a moment of intense focus on the wide-ranging impacts of air pollution from coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions.

Then, a few days later, the government ordered media outlets to “absolutely discontinue coverage of the documentary.”

The Beijing Internet Management Office posted a dispatch saying to “please remove all reports, commentary, and other contents about Chai Jing’s “Under the Dome” from the home pages and news pages,” adding that the Internet Management Office would “check in five minutes” so please “act quickly.”

As ClimateProgress reported when the documentary first came out, what made the release especially significant was that the Chinese government, known for spiking any media painting the government in a bad light, had not banned the documentary. China’s new environment minister, Chen Jining, even praised it, saying it reflected “growing public concern over environmental protection and threats to human health.”

Why this sudden turnaround from co-opting the documentary’s message to quashing its very existence?

According to Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, “Under the Dome” was banned for its popularity, not for its message. Speaking during a discussion after a screening of the film at the Wilson Center on Thursday, Daly said that the film allowed Chai Jing to “control the discourse” around China’s crippling air pollution problems.

“The banning of ‘Under the Dome’ is not a Chinese governmental denial or rejection of environmental concerns or Chai Jing’s argument,” said Daly, who believes instead that the ban is a reminder that the the Central Government insists on setting the agenda and providing the solutions. Daly said that Chai Jing’s telling of the story in a very personal voice, and her statement that fighting air pollution was a “personal battle” are radical notions in China.

“Are you allowed to fight personal battles on this scale in China?” Daly asked.

Many have compared the lecture-style film, replete with charts and visual aids, to Al Gore’s 2006 “An Inconvenient Truth,” but Chai’s original motivation for making the self-sponsored film was deeply personal. She used to pay little attention to the smog engulfing her home city of Beijing, but that changed when she found out she was pregnant in 2013. Shortly thereafter, she discovered through a sonogram that her child had a benign tumor.

“I’d never felt afraid of pollution before, and never wore a mask no matter where,” Chai, 39, says in the video. “But when you carry a life in you, what she breathes, eats and drinks are all your responsibility, and then you feel the fear.”

In the film, Chai laments with dismay all the time she spent in Beijing thinking that the air pollution was just fog. She says one of the first times she realized there was “something more to the fog” was when the U.S. Embassy in Beijing started monitoring PM 2.5 concentrations and making them publicly available in 2008. PM 2.5 is an especially hazardous form of particulate matter air pollution that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, or about 1/30th the diameter of a human hair. When inhaled, these tiny particles can pass through the respiratory tract all the way into the lungs. On top of asthma, studies have linked extended exposure to PM 2.5 to heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, lupus, and other ailments.

Daly said that while the most important thing about this film is that it’s a Chinese voice speaking to China, the many Western influences apparent in the film’s production should not be overlooked. On top of its references to PM 2.5 readings from the U.S. Embassy, Daly noted the documentary is also in the style of a TED Talk, relies heavily on NASA data, has been likened to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring – which is often credited with inciting the environmental movement in the U.S. – works in the tradition of video journalism programs such as “60 Minutes,” and is even named after the American TV series “Under the Dome.”

“This is in part a product of the U.S.’s policy of engagement with China,” said Daly. “This kind of cultural exposure has a profound impact over time.”

Daly said that the Chinese leadership’s decision to ban the film over its popularity is ultimately harmful to the country’s efforts to be a persuasive international force, and that it redirects attention from the acute challenges of controlling air pollution to the standard questions about governance and transparency. He also said that when foreigners express anger over the ban, Chinese figures of authority get upset over what they see as foreign meddling. This is a cycle that’s been going on since China started modernizing 35 years ago.

The optics of the ban also somewhat darken the prospects for China’s potential role in the critical international climate talks this year, where leaders will decide on a new climate change treaty to go into effect by 2020. China’s place in the ongoing discussion was elevated at the end of 2014 when the country made a made a powerful joint pledge with the U.S. to limit greenhouse gas emissions during President Obama’s visit to the Chinese capital. In the pledge, the U.S. committed to cut its emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and China agreed to get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030 and to peak greenhouse gas emissions that same year.

In the film comparisons are made to Los Angeles’ pollution problem during the “age of oil” before environmental regulations went into effect as well as “the Great Smog” that usurped London in the middle of the 20th Century. Chai points out how damaging air pollution was to those cities during their critical periods of development. China, especially the area around Beijing, has grown at a more rapid pace and is using far more fossil fuels than either of the growth spurts experienced by London or L.A.

In an indication of the potential for future change in China, the documentary is still available for viewing by international audiences throughout the world, including in L.A. and London, on YouTube.