DOCUMENTARY FIRES THE FIRST BULLET AT AIR POLLUTION IN CHINA
March 6, 2015
Released last weekend, the 104-minute documentary Under the Dome was watched by more than 200 million people within a week, triggered heated discussion on China’s air pollution, and raised questions about pollution’s relationship to poor governance. Earlier today, the celebrity journalist-made documentary that was initially backed by Beijing was erased from all Chinese websites.
The documentary, compared to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, was a sign of the government’s resolve to tackle pollution, including heavy industries among the worst polluters. Environmentalists, activists, and the general public were optimistic because the documentary was promoted by all Chinese official media Weibo accounts (a Chinese version of Twitter), echoed in China’s Premiere Li Keqiang’s opening remarks at the ongoing 12th National People’s Congress 3rd plenary and 12th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference 3rd plenary, and praised by the UK-educated newly appointed Environment Minister Chen Jining. Not unexpectedly, the documentary was pulled by the country’s censorship apparatus earlier today. The popularity of the documentary and its quick removal imply that factions and interest groups within Chinese leadership are fighting furiously on the air pollution issue now. Nonetheless, the start of discussion is a good sign.
Core problems revealed by the documentary are who to blame for and how to resolve China’s toxic air pollution. The only information available now on Chinese official websites about Under the Dome is a response letter from PetroChina, criticizing the documentary for being biased and unprofessional. Simply put, PetroChina denied monopolizing the petrochemical industry, blocking open market competition, and impeding the transition from heavy industry. Given the factional infighting, is blue sky Beijing an impossible dream? No—Beijingers and the rest of the world still remember “APEC Blue” and clear skies during Beijing Olympics, indicating the capability of Chinese government to resolve air pollution.
The main concern from the government is whether shutting down the factories that are the worst polluters would lead to a sluggish economic growth rate, which has already slowed to approximately 7%. Yet, as the documentary mentioned, both London and Los Angeles overcame severe air pollution by implementing strict environmental protection laws, setting tight emission test standards, promoting RD&D in heavy-duty engines and vehicles, and switching excessive heavy industry labor to the service industry.
Does China have a well established environmental protection law (EPL)? Yes. A new EPL took effect on January 1, 2015 with increased transparency, liabilities for polluters, liabilities for government officials, whistleblower protections, and a broadened scope of parties with standing to file environmental pollution claims. With the current government’s centralization of power, there is no doubt that with firm resolve, air pollution can be addressed. Meanwhile, late last year, the United States and China jointly announced a climate change and clean energy accord, a foundational agreement for future cooperation and commitments. We eagerly await more details of the accord’s implementation.
Under the Dome is just the first bullet fired at the air pollution problem in China. With the successful examples of London and Los Angeles, extensive public awareness, strong determination from leadership, and international pressure to be a responsible major power, China’s government is shooting for a clean, blue sky within ten years.
For more information on this topic, consult the following sources:
Foreign Policy – “China’s National Conversation on Pollution Has Finally Begun”
The Wall Street Journal – “Pollution Documentary ‘Under the Dome’ Blankets Chinese Internet”
The Huffington Post – “China’s ‘Inconvenient Truth:’ Anti-Pollution Documentary Goes Viral”
The Atlantic – “China’s Surprise Viral Hit: An Environmental Documentary”
The Guardian – “Viral China pollution film is brave, personal and powerful”
The Wall Street Journal – “Beijing Quietly Curbs Discussion of Documentary on Air Pollution”
The Telegraph – “China erases its ‘inconvenient truth’ film on pollution”
Scientific American – “China’s War on Air Pollution May Cause More Global Warming”
Hogan Lovells – Clearing the Air on China’s New Environmental Protection Law
蘋果日報 – “柴靜揭霾害 傳高層授意”
中央通訊社 – “柴靜穹頂之下完勝紙牌屋 霧霾共鳴大”
文匯網 – “柴靜離職後自費百萬調查霧霾”
腾讯新闻 – “柴静离职后首度亮相 自费百万元拍雾霾纪录片”（人民网记者采访柴静）
中国日报 – “中石油高层亲自撰文反击柴静雾霾纪录片”
中国日报 – “柴静雾霾调查一天传遍全网说明了什么？”
中国日报 – “环保部长：感谢柴静唤醒公众环保意识”
Compiled and edited by Stella Ran Zheng