A 104-minute film lecture that outlines the serious pollution in China was removed from the nation’s Internet on Friday, after receiving millions of views and raising hopes that the country’s leadership might tackle China’s widespread smog problem.
The film – by Chai Jing, one of the best-known journalists in China and a well-known former state television reporter – was released right before China’s two most important political events, the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Before the movie was censored, a story from Xinhua News Agency, China’s official press agency, praising the film was deleted online the same night the article was posted, offering a hint of the government’s real attitude.
“They killed Chai’s film, but didn’t kill the smog,” Lu Weimin, a lawyer in Shanghai, said on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular micro-blog site. “This is like getting rid of people who raise questions, but not solving problems.”
Released last Saturday, “Under the Dome” had received 42.9 million views on Youku, a video-sharing website like YouTube, by 5 p.m. Thursday. It prompted 530,460 posts on Weibo.
In the film, Chai gives a speech and shows data and interviews with government officials and environmental experts from China and abroad. The film shows striking images of the extent of air pollution in a number of Chinese cities, as well as rivers fouled by chemicals and littered with flotsam and dead fish. Chai also traveled to Los Angeles and London to gauge their experiences dealing with smog.
“In the entire year of 2014, 175 days were polluted in Beijing,” Chai says in the film, citing data from the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau. Other major cities – including Tianjin, Shenyang and Chengdu – also each had more than 100 heavily polluted days in 2014, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Shijiazhuang, the capital city of Hebei province and only 200 miles from Beijing, had 264 days of pollution last year.
In a 2004 interview with a 6-year-old girl shown in the film, the girl – a native of Xiaoyi, in Shanxi province, a city that relies heavily on its mineral resources – tells Chai she’s never seen stars in the sky.
“It’s hard to imagine that the pollution in this girl’s hometown has extended to Beijing in just 10 years,” Chai says in the film.
The reality can be even worse than the film shows, because China has a lower standard for air quality than most of the rest of the world. For example, China calls a day “good quality” when PM2.5 – tiny particles in the air that reduce visibility and affect people’s hearts and lungs – is lower than 35 micrograms per cubic meter, and “polluted” when the fine particulates reach 75, according to the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau. But the maximum healthy exposure to PM2.5 is 25 micrograms per cubic meter, according to 2005 guidelines from the World Health Organization. Readings in Beijing have soared higher than 300 micrograms.
Despite the standards, there’s no real punishment in China when people break the environmental law, which some point to as a key reason for the rapidly spreading pollution problems, the film notes.
“It’s an open secret in the industry that almost 90 percent of diesel vehicles don’t reach the environmental emission standard they claim they have,” said Li Kunsheng, a director in the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau. China doesn’t have a clear regulation for which governmental department is in charge of such issues, so not a single vehicle has been recalled for faulty emission equipment.
In the film, Chai mentions an interview with a vehicle manufacturer who said he had “no choice but to produce counterfeits” because “he’ll go bankrupt if he’s the only one producing qualified diesel vehicles in the industry.”
Another reason for the air pollution, Chai says in the film, is energy standards that in effect permit the widespread use of highly polluting coal and petroleum. A monopoly by state-owned companies in energy industries and large government subsidies to these companies make the problems worse, offering no motive for innovation.
Chai’s film revealing loopholes in the country’s environmental laws won much praise in China. Chen Jining, the newly appointed environment minister, told the Beijing News, a major newspaper in the capital, that he’d texted Chai to thank her for the work. Chen also said the film reminded him of “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book by Rachel Carson that inspired the U.S. environmental movement.
“It’s quite impressive, with details, convincing and supportive scientific data, and viewpoints from interviews and field work,” said Zheng Yan, an associate research fellow in urban and environmental studies at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. “It’s also a great job for public awareness on the severe environmental issues in China.”
Chai says in the film that she did this for her newborn daughter, who was diagnosed with a tumor before birth. Last year, Chai checked the air quality every day and kept her child home on polluted days for almost six months. She says she wants people not to have to worry about the affects of air pollution on their kids, the way she did for her daughter.
Not everyone agrees with the film’s point of view.
“What Chai doesn’t see are the millions of ordinary Chinese people, who are scared of poverty and unemployment more than the smog. Only when China continues its economic development can those people and their kids afford to think about the problem that bothers Chai and her kid,” Fang Ninggang, a doctor at Beijing Jishuitan Hospital, said in his Weibo three days after the film was released.
Others see hope for China.
“Energy restructuring might have negative impacts for a few years, but it could be compensated by jobs created by industries such as wind power, forestry,” Zheng, the Fairbank fellow at Harvard, said of such economic concerns. Such efforts to curb pollution could become a force for innovation in years to come, Zheng added.
The nation’s massive political meetings are taking place in Beijing now, but no direct discussions have surfaced of the problems raised by Chai’s film.
Cao Xianghong, head of the National Petroleum Products and Lubricants Standardization Technical Committee, talked to reporters about the film on the sidelines of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference opening Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported. He said China aimed to eliminate the gap in standards between China and Europe eventually, without offering details.
“This is a highly technical exercise and needs time,” he told The Journal. “It can’t be done just with me talking here today.”