GoKunming Articles

Documentary Under the Dome captivates China

By in Features on

China, just as every other country on earth, is prone to viral videos. Usually these feature cute kittens or people falling on their heads. But over the past four days, the Middle Kingdom experienced a very different sort of internet sensation when retired journalist Chai Jing (柴静) released an environmental documentary entitled Under the Dome: Investigating China's Smog (雾霾调查: 穹顶之下).

The film explores the causes and effects of smog in the country, and also delves into government policy on the control — or notable lack thereof — concerning air pollution in general. Chai's 100-minute film has struck an acute nerve among everyday Chinese internet users, and according to a CBS News report, was viewed an astonishing 180 million times in the 96 hours following its release on Chinese video-sharing sites.

Each year, especially in winter, hundreds of Chinese cities, typically those in the country's northeast, are enshrouded in smog — a mixture of smoke, sulfur dioxide and other particulate matter emitted by coal-fired power plants and factories. In the film, Chai says the impetus for her making Under the Dome arose when her daughter was born and Chai began to think about raising a child in a city as polluted as Beijing.

She quit her job as a highly successful reporter and on-air personality at China Central Television and spent the next year — and one million yuan (US$159,000) of her own money — to make Under the Dome. Since its February 28 release, the film has repeatedly been called "China's An Inconvenient Truth", in reference to the 2006 documentary by ex-United States Vice President Al Gore.

In style and presentation, Chai's film is much the same as Gore's, showing her giving a speech to a live audience with the assistance of digital photos, video and statistics displayed on a giant screen behind her. Chai's however, is a documentary much more driven by pathos than its American predecessor. Beginning with an ultra-sound image of her unborn daughter, the film quickly moves on to show an interview with a little girl from Shanxi who says she has never seen a blue sky, white clouds or stars, presumably because of persistent smog.

But Under the Dome is not simply a documentary that tugs at the heartstrings. Chai employs government data, interviews scientists, doctors, academics and laymen, ventures into a coal mine, explores the use of coal and oil worldwide and speaks with surprisingly candid government officials. It all adds up to a powerful litany of questions and worries that has elicited a nationwide conversation in under a week, perhaps just as it was planned to.

Released just days before annual legislative meetings in Beijing, Under the Dome may have been a way for Chai to influence not just national debate, but also effect governmental policy, which is often strong on language and short on follow-through. Almost a year to the day before Chai released her documentary, Premier Li Keqiang told a meeting of the National People's Congress that China had "declared war on pollution". In an article published at the time by South China Morning Post, Li was quoted as saying:

[Pollution is] nature's red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development. Efforts to protect the environment matter to people's lives and the future of the Chinese nation...We must break [our] mental shackles and break down the barriers of vested interests with great determination.

Such pronouncements are indeed strong, but for Chai, and apparently tens of millions of other people, they mean little when nothing has actually been accomplished one year on. For now, the question remains: Will Under the Dome help coalesce China's embryonic environmental movement or become just another passing internet fad?

The film openly violates two unspoken but sacrosanct Chinese internet rules by pointedly questioning Beijing policy and actively promoting community action. Near the end of the documentary, Chai, according to a Wall Street Journal translation, tells viewers "This is how history is made. With thousands of ordinary people one day saying, 'No, I'm not satisfied, I don't want to wait...I want to stand up and do a little something'". That she has yet to face any discipline, for Chinese environmentalists who know the air they breathe is only one worry of many, may be a very encouraging sign indeed.

Top image: Wordpress

© Copyright 2005-2024 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Share this article


Almost two million views per hour!

"Have you ever seen stars?" Ms Chai asks. "No," replies the girl.

"Have you ever seen a blue sky?" "I have seen a sky that's a little bit blue," the girl tells her.

"But have you ever seen white clouds?" "No," the girl sighs.

When such a documentary does not lead to arrests or censorship in China, it likely means the state really is going to do something - about time (or, maybe, a little bit late). But of course the issue is monstrously huge, and not only in China.

Only until MONEY/PROFITS are secondary will something be done about this huge problem. The people that have money can move to another country with less polution. The poor are 'stuck' where they live.

The YouTube version has (fledgling) Chinglish subtitles.

yep Liuming. and expats like me who can't get jobs back home are 'stuck' too! don't forget about us.

Jonathan Papish is currently working on a translation, and uploading the video, piece by piece, on the channel as he goes. Here's part 1: www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhIZ50HKIp0

You need a documentary so people can understand this. Going to take a few breaths, say, to Beijing is not enough, it must be presented in a TV documentary, heh.

@Liumingke1234, "Only until MONEY/PROFITS are secondary will something be done about this huge problem."

China has already been leading in renewable energy for the past few years, while close to nothing was done to protect the environment during the Western Industrial Revolution. Residual pollution that came from that period is still harming the environment today and will remain for more decades.

No matter how much the Western media wants to aggressively promote this video, the pollution and dangers of raising a child and living in China won't stop before they achieve their desired level of prosperity. Meanwhile, the production and use of wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric facilities in China is expanding exponentially.

yeah, but did they have access to the same renewable energy technology during the industrial revolution? at the same costs?

yeah, but did they have access to the same renewable energy technology during the industrial revolution? at the same costs?

There's 1.3 Billion people in China. That's also another factor. More people using coal. More people using cars. When I first got here, I was amazed at all the bicycles I saw. No pollution just a lot of people. Nine years later those bicyles have been replaced with cars and e-bike which has rapidly pollutions the air, water and land.

I've people that drink 'diet coke' and eat a huge meal in a false sense that they are 'trying' to lose weight. True that China is using solar and wind power but all that is for not if they don't fix the other things. Just like the person who goes to the gym everyday but still drinks and smokes. Might as well not go to the gym.

The government is not doing anything my ass, wait until this woman tries to leave the country to receive an international prize, hehheheh.

They do have access now. And despite the fact that they have already been developed countries and achieved prosperity for a while, they are still lacking behind in renewable energy.
The carbon emission per head in China has taken over Europe less than 6 months ago, but is still less than half of that of the US. Keep in mind that the EU and the US have been polluting the Earth for centuries and have already contributed to most of the long-term environmental damage that is present today.

yankee, sorry i need to ask. who do you work for and how much are they paying you? are you a wu mao?

The fact that there appears to have been no censorship. Coupled with the timing, just as the NPC CPPCC meeting opens and the environment is on the agenda. To me suggest that the launch of the video may have been stage managed. Perhaps as a litmus test to public reaction/support for major changes in the way the environment is managed.

Because if there is a major shift it could possibly have a big economic impact that would affect the people who have become accustomed to economic growth (suggested by some pundits as major mandate for the political status quo).

I don't think it is a case about western media promoting this video. The sheer number of hits and public response in China IS newsworthy.

If you think there is no precedent for step changes in policy that shake up the system, you just need to look at the 'tigers and flies' campaign that everyone thought would be merely cosmetic. 100 000 and counting.

That makes sense.

@Magnifico, no.

can someone provide a website where I can see the pollution for every province in China.

ask your mates at the nsa

yes, there is a "quiet censorship" going on. the local media have been told ( a phone call from the Propaganda chief ) to keep the subject in a low key - meaning no more mention of it a day after the documentary hit the screen. so... no, the gov will put gdp in front of anything else at this juncture when the economy is slowing. :-)

see what comes of the conferentce

Large prominent articles on this documentary appeared on either Monday or Tuesday or maybe both in the China Daily and Global Times - in other words, the state wanted you to know about it.

Perhaps local media were told to play it down, in order that central can control the message more easily. Looking at the quality of some local news reporting, that would not be in the least bit surprising.

in the past some guys had fingers firmly in pies. no one would vote for smaller pies. now 100k have had fingers burned in pies, people less likely to want to go dipping and less likelyt to vote against change.

It's not govt managed; just govt allowed. Govt propaganda doesn't go viral. But yes, they could of shut it down if they wanted too, so letting it flow means big environmental announcements will follow. Whether China carries them all out is always up for debate, but the govt does try to move the needle in the right direction at least.

@Dazzer: vote?

"She quit her job as a highly successful reporter and on-air personality at China Central Television and spent the next year — and one million yuan (US$159,000) of her own money — to make Under the Dome."

sorry, i don't believe it.

documentaries hardly ever make much money. no one would spend that much to make their own documentary.

this is govt sponsored.

She did it cause she blames the benign tumor in her then unborn child on air pollution. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Again, netizens don't let govt propaganda go viral, unless it's to poke fun at it.

It's a sad world when you can trust ANYTHING that is presented to you at face value.

Also, people spend their own money to make documentaries mostly. In the states, filmmakers go into serious credit card and family debt in order to get their film made. If you have ever met or talk to documentary filmmakers, it's never about making money, very far from it. It's usually something intensely personal that drives them.

ok, your points are valid. but 159K USD is entering into hollywood documentary budget territory, if you ask me.

and also, she worked at CCTV for many years which means she has many friends (camera crew, technicians) who would help her out. it wouldn't cost her so much having access to those resources.

i could be wrong. i'm watching the first 10 minutes on youtube with engrish translation for the foreign-language challenged.

anyway, even if it is govt sponsored, it's not necessarily bad if it gets people thinking about environmental issues. although in the case of al gore's film, i think a lot of stuff in it was bs.

Can only suggest people watch the film like you are and decide for themselves. The real problem with docus is you don't care about the subject matter, they put you to sleep or make you click other links. That isn't the case for this one, as every Chinese person deals with ever decreasing air quality, so plenty of interest.

@alien members of the cppcc discuss an vote on stuff,thts what committee do

@dazzer, yeah, they do, but then where do cppcc members come from?
And I suspect, even if it's true that the money put into the documentary was all her own, she had some assurance before she started that it wasn't going to lead to arrest or censorship. So I think it's probably a put-up job, to some extent, but am glad anyway, because if the state is happy enough to have it out there, then it must indicate an increased policy emphasis on their part.

the People's Web is tightly controlled by the party propaganda machinery. if the documentary could go "viral" without the machinery "noticed", there must be "something" at work. Now, the trivial. The report's daughter is an American because she was born in the USA. so whose money that was spent on the documentary, is not the issue.

Not all the pollution in China comes from factories. A lot of it comes down to bad personal choices like driving a car to save face when a bus or bicycle would do instead. How about all the uncontrolled exploding of firecrackers? When the government tried to regulate it people got angry that their right to foul the air was being infringed upon.

How about the 700 million farmers that are constantly burning garbage and organic material (rather than rotating crops)? Agricultural pollution in China is huge problem, but it's not something that can be dealt with easily because many of these farmers simply can't afford to adopt modern farming methods. It will likely take decades to move these people into urban middle class environments and switch to large scale farming.

Large-scale farming is by no means the answer. The burning of trash is usually because there's no adequate trash collection service. The burning of rice stalks is a problem but not because they don't rotate crops (you don't rotate crops with rice afaik). There would be alternatives to rice stalk burning, as below paper suggests:


Also, with rice farming, I think it is difficult to produce the economies of scale that are possible with other crops (e.g., wheat) - hard to achieve the per-hectare yields that are possible with intensive labor, and this in a highly populous country with relatively little agricultural land (I mean, China is mostly not very flat - tribute to be bad by the enormous labor resources put into slope land over many, many centuries) - but this is not my field, not sure what the most advanced agricultural methods may be capable of in terms of large-scale farming these days).

Some places have adequate trash collection service but locals still choose to burn the trash to cook with and heat their homes. It's pretty common with the elderly. They also like to burn coal inside their homes when radiant or electric heating is available to save money.

I am living in Shandong Province, which is just about ground zero for air pollution. The main crop here is wheat, and they burn it.

When I stayed in Dali for the entire month of February, the air quality index was over 100 almost every day. There is very little industry in Dali, but you can clearly see where the air pollution is coming from...farmers burning stuff. I have a clear view of the valley, and I toured it several times on a bicycle.

I get you, but I wonder just how many farmers can be moved into middle class urban environments and leave the farming to advanced agricultural methods - question remains how many farmers China needs. And I dunno.

I believe it is the dirty industries coupled with the lack of enforcement of environmental laws that are the problem. I am now in Fushan in the southern part of china in Guangdong, there is little farming (agriculture) left in this part of china but fish, pig and poultry farming, but the air pollution is choking because of the concentration of industries and the curtains of high rising buildings. if one remembers the Beijing Olympics, the gov ordered shutting down industries around Beijing in neighbouring provinces during the games, that made a difference even the air was still bad. with that perception of mine, I don't think the small farmers shouldn't be held responsibility for the problem. admittedly it helps if the small farmers can afford to pay more attention to new technology and practices.

The urban population of China is currently about 55%. In most developed countries it's between 80 - 90%. China's target for 2020 is 60%. I would guess it'll be about 25 years to catch up with the West. However, as already pointed out not all areas of China are suitable for large scale farming, so maybe what works for the West won't work for China.


".....the small farmers should be held responsibility ......

Do you mean Foshan? AQI there is 65 today. Where I live it's 160. 160 is pretty must as low as it gets here. In 2012 there was a period of about three months where the AQI was between 500-1000.

Hebei region is generally considered to have the worst air quality in China. I have not spent much time in South China, but I do check AQICN fairly often. South China is generally considered to have better air quality than average.

yes, Anonymous C. it is Foshan, thank you. it is the pm2.5 that makes the story. here in foshan, it reads 106 micrograms and 180 micrograms lately. where in Shunde the reading reads 202. keeping in mind that below 25 is considered safe by WHO, I believe. :-)
on API, in "99 percent urbanised" hong kong where I visit often, the api can get up to 207. makes me wonder. :-)

I'm sure a big part of the problem with air quality in Hong Kong is that it's a tiny city state, and they get a lot of the bad air from the mainland. Population density in HK is a little insane too.

ja, i always wonder why it seems that government responsability is more talkedthan consumer responsbality. who buys the good, creates the infrastructure needed, throw garbage?

in my opinion consumption implies pollution.

the system may also suggests us to consume, nearly like propaganda, for instance trough commercials and capita

recently i ve been quite worried by ocean water quality in my homeland, basque country. according to surfrider foundation, is a lot due to consumers

here an article which explains every year we throw 13 million tons of plastics into the sea. the little plastic bags, daizi, we dont need

The video is no longer available. My wife searched Baidu and was not able to find it there either.

The film has been removed entirely from the Chinese internet by government censors. I'll add a note to the actual article and remove the broken link.

So sounds like I was wrong - maybe the government didn't want you to know about it?

Login to comment