By Emily Deng
Chai Jing’s environmental documentary film “Under the Dome” created waves through China, leading to controversies over censorship, hypocrisy, and data validity. While the film has left an impression on hundreds of millions in China and around the world, its humble beginnings were inspired by a much more personal story.
Growing up in the heavily industrialized Shanxi province, Chai Jing believed with everyone else at the time that the thick gray skies over her hometown were simply a result of “fog.” It was not until recently that Chai and her fellow Chinese realized that this weather phenomenon was in fact “smog.” In 2013, Chai Jing’s unborn baby was diagnosed with a brain tumor even before birth. Doctors reported that Beijing’s severe air pollution most likely caused it. They successfully removed the infant’s benign tumor, yet Chai, a former China Central Television (CCTV) news reporter, still sought to answer three questions: What is smog? Where does smog come from? What shall we do with it? Fueled by her new parenthood, Chai self-funded $160,000 towards a yearlong investigation and production of “Under the Dome.”
“Under the Dome” was released on February 28, 2015, and within 24 hours, the video received 117 million views on video platforms such as Tencent and Youku and 280 million posts on microblogging website Weibo. It was hailed as China’s equivalent to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” The Minister of Environmental Protection claimed, “I want to thank her. She has wakened up the public to pay attention to the environment from a public health perspective.” Meanwhile, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced, “We are going to punish, with an iron hand, any violators who destroy ecology or the environment, with no exceptions.”
At the end of the film, Chai called for greater public action and citizen reporting, but did not directly mention change for government policy. “Under the Dome” revealed the powerlessness of Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) to enforce its standards against the country’s strongest industries: energy and steel. Instead of demanding policy changes from the government, Chai promoted the MEP’s public service hotline for reporting incompliant businesses to make simple, yet effective changes on the grassroots level. In the film for example, a local restaurant installed a MEP-mandated ventilation system after Chai reported that the restaurant emitted harmful gas fumes.
However, the greatest controversy was not over the film itself, but rather the resulting public reactions of the film. Many viewers openly questioned the Chinese government in public protests and on social media. Activists wearing face masks in Xi’an held an anti-pollution protest with signs that read, “The government has a duty to control smog” and “Smog causes cancer and harms everyone.” Meanwhile, Weibo users posted similar sentiments online, as one user said, “The real pollution is bad governance. If we cannot get rid of those bad people, the smog will always hang over us.”
Within the week, “Under the Dome” and its 150 million views virtually disappeared, another victim of China’s vast propaganda machine. Links to Youku and all major video streaming websites displayed error messages. The New York Times reported the Shanghai Propaganda Department’s response, “Media and websites of all types and levels…must absolutely discontinue coverage of the documentary ‘Under the Dome’ and its creator.”
CNN claims this blatant censorship was due to the film’s release date being so close to the National People’s Congress, where pollution was one of the main talking points. Additionally, the film’s open criticism of major state-owned enterprises in energy and steel such as Sinopec directly threatened many high-ranking Chinese officials with strong ties to these corporations. The censorship, moreover, reveals China’s deepest fear: social unrest. Harvard scholars determined that rather than targeting government criticism, China’s censorship program’s purpose “is to reduce the probability of collective action by clipping social ties whenever any collective movements are in evidence or expected.” With the mounting anger from public protests and social media comments, the visible public dissent as a result of “Under the Dome” became a threat to Chinese officials who feared that the environmental protests could easily turn into larger protests challenging the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party.
While Xi Jinping’s campaigns have the good intentions of eliminating corruption and improving air quality, I believe Chai is right: no change in China can be done without the collective action of the Chinese people. With its enormous size, the Chinese population has a unique, yet untapped capability of influencing its government to bend to its will. Thus far, the government has used censorship and deception to prevent any uprisings, but with time, it will become apparent that it is only with the Chinese population that the government can make effective change in China. Although Chai’s film remains blocked for Chinese citizens, its ideas have already affected a desire for change in the minds of the Chinese people, and China’s fight for cleaner air can no longer be put aside.
Image by BriYYZ