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.
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