Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Under The Dome

A couple of months ago, a documentary about China's pollution went viral, receiving over 150 million hits in the first few days of its online release. Made by Chai Jing, a former investigative reporter with CCTV, "Under the Dome" is reminiscent of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." It explains the problem in ways that people can easily understand. And it is a call to arms. Some have called it China's "Silent Spring." 

Here's Part 1, with full English subtitles.

I've blogged (and written a book about) China's environmental problems, which are so severe that they've had a huge negative impact on peoples' health and could undermine China's economic miracle altogether. The Chinese central government—or at least certain factions of it—are well aware of extent of this crisis, and on paper, Chinese environmental regulations are fairly strict. But China's environmental protection agency, SEPA, lacks the funding and the regulatory teeth to actually enforce those regulations, and competing interests that benefit from unrestrained growth and dirty industry want to keep it that way, in spite of the very real costs of China's filthy air, contaminated water and polluted soil.

These dynamics partially explain why "Under the Dome" was a huge viral hit, with some 200 million Chinese viewing it. Until the video was abruptly pulled from Chinese websites by government censors.

China's central government in recent years has been fairly tolerant of discussion and even protests, as long as those protests remain localized. And there are many in the government who would like to see stronger enforcement of environmental regulations. But the "red line" in China is any kind of discussion or activity which could form the basis of a mass movement that might potentially oppose the CCP, and environmental concerns in China have the potential to unite large numbers of people. In fact, they already have. From poor farmers protesting polluting factories that destroy their crops to wealthy urban dwellers who would like to be able to breathe safely on the streets of their own cities, these issues cut across class, income and location.

Sadly, the margins for acceptable public discourse under new President Xi Jinping have narrowed considerably. Environmental activists, feminists, and journalists have been detained and in some cases sentenced to long prison terms for activities that might have been tolerated a few years ago. In the case of "Under the Dome," a New York Times article speculates that the documentary may have been actively supported by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and then suppressed by agencies such as the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Finance. From my amateur Sinologist's perspective, I find this a pretty credible theory. As the NYT piece points out, power in China is far from monolithic, and factional competition and fragmented authority drive events far more than many people realize.

But what is also true is that these competing interests are all "under the dome." Everyone whether they are rich or poor breathes the same air.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...


  1. I'm always dumbstruck when I see pictures of the air pollution in some of China's cities. Regarding change, all modern societies seem to go through repeating cycles every 80-120 years, basically driven by length of human lifespans (which proves that we don't appear to learn from history). It's now what, around 65 years since the communist revolution in China? You have to figure that there's an increasingly likely chance of major upheaval in China's future, some time in the next 10-30 years (just as the U.S. is also due...)

  2. Lisa, this is so important! I hope people will read Hour of the Rat for the brilliant dramatization of this problem that it is. I am tweeting and sharing on FB NOW!!

  3. Thanks, guys. It is very difficult to say what will happen in China. Xi Jinping is pretty popular, and Chinese in general tend to think better of the central government than local ones. The people who are getting squeezed -- activists, intellectuals, etc. -- are not a majority of the population, and for most people, if they feel that their lives are improving, then political repression isn't such an issue. On the other hand, acceptance of the political status quo doesn't mean lack of awareness, and it's not a blank check. I get the impression that people are pretty tired of the petty censorship, and clearly they are disgusted with the endemic corruption and rising income inequality. I don't know what the tipping point might be and am hesitant to do much predicting on that point.

  4. as a p.s. the documentary is well-worth watching. She does a great job.

  5. I'm so tired of soo many things going sooo wrong in soooo many parts of our planet. :(