Chinese documentary "Under the Dome" sheds light on China's tremendous environmental issues

By James Brennan on April 5, 2015

When Chai Jing (柴静), one of China’s most celebrated investigative reporters, found out that her unborn daughter had a benign tumor — most likely due to China’s horrific pollution problem — she decided that she would turn all of her power and influence into tackling China’s growing environmental disaster and created self-funded documentary Under the Dome. The video became an instant hit, garnering more than 155 million views on the day of its release. After that, the documentary went viral, spreading first across China — reaching over 300 million views in two days — and then around the world.

There has been a firestorm of comments in the Chinese blogosphere surrounding this documentary. One commenter, Yángyáng (杨阳) posted, “Under the Dome is made so that China’s ordinary, common people can clearly understand the situation of pollution in this country by alerting the public, so they can take action for the benefit of future generations.” According to an article in The Guardian, the prominent Chinese environmentalist, Ma Jun (马军) described the film as “one of the most important pieces of public awareness of all time by Chinese media.” Even Chen Jining (陈吉宁), the newly-appointed Minister of Environmental Protection, voiced strong support for the film, stating “I think this work has an important role in promoting awareness of environmental health issues, so I’m particularly pleased with this event.” Under the Dome was a shining, rare example of uncensored criticism against the Chinese government.

Until the day it was no longer.

On March 2nd, the Chinese government made an about-face, banning the documentary and all discussions surrounding it, both online and in people's daily lives. It is not new for the Chinese government to restrict internet access – just ask Facebook or Google – but what has made this instance unique is that the documentary initially had the implicit support of the government. This case of censorship was unlike previous instances of differing pollution ratings between foreign embassies and the official readings by the government in Beijing, where contrasting data is ignored outright. Like most governments, the Chinese like to present a unified front and their flip-flopping on Under the Dome, presented a rare public schism in the party.

So, why did this happen? First, let us turn our attention to some of the major issues brought up by the documentary.

Under the Dome

For a large part of the documentary, Ms. Chai meticulously describes how coal, oil, vehicles and factories are damaging China’s environment. She examines the controversies and difficulties surrounding each energy producer, and wraps up the documentary by evincing how ordinary Chinese citizens can help improve China’s environment. Throughout the film, Chai Jing interviews numerous Chinese government officials of varying importance. When she confronts environmental officials, many of them explain they are unable to enforce the written laws. They are “toothless”, in the words of one official.

When she interviews officials from the state-owned giant Sinopec and other energy functionaries, they claim that the damage to the environment is an unfortunate bi-product of economic progress. The common refrain is that progress must be maintained at all costs. It is the conflict between these two sectors of the government – modernity and environmental calamity – that caused the initial support, as well as the subsequent reneging, of Ms. Chai’s film.

The About Face

While Chai Jing’s investigation is very interesting, not much of it comes as news. Anyone who has lived in China for a significant amount of time knows there are severe inefficiencies in the regulation of environmental law. The daily routine of wearing face masks, struggling with coughs and being locked in an apartment for fear of irreversible damage if one were to go outside become common knowledge. Chinese government officials know this as well: they too must coexist with the smog just as everyone else. In other words, the information Chai Jing presented in the film wasn’t necessarily revolutionary. It did, however, give Chinese citizens free reign to criticize public policy – an uncommon luxury.

It is important to underline that ranting on the internet does not bother the government as much as the threat of collective action. Chai Jing’s documentary gave the entire nation the impetus — and implied consent — of collective protest. By initially allowing this documentary to be viewed, Beijing opened Pandora’s Box, and after seeing the looming threat of real, grass-roots pressure, it frantically tried to shut the lid.

Some argue that Chai Jing’s timing was conveniently linked to the government’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the Two Sessions, for 2015. The Chinese government is notorious for shutting down dissent during major political/social events, so with Chai Jing releasing her documentary only a few days before the major political meeting of the year, many believe it decreased the importance of the Two Sessions. The Chinese government did not want such a popular and widespread video to overshadow the important legislative message of the meeting. Either the government underestimated the power of Chai Jing’s message or the environmental supporters within the government were able get the documentary approved by downplaying its importance. Regardless, the (possibly) coincidental timing of the film and the Two Sessions invariably had an impact on the decision to ban the movie.

Another, and perhaps more likely reason the movie was censored, was the powerful state-owned energy companies, namely Sinopec and PetroChina. These two companies wield enormous amounts of power and influence within the Chinese government and Chinese society as a whole. Since both of these companies are state-owned, it becomes a cycle of beneficial policies towards Sinopec and PetroChina, oftentimes at the determent of the environmental bureau. This is most likely the case with Under the Dome. The film turned an unflinching eye towards the energy sector of the government; Chai Jing criticized the lack enforcement of environmental laws at the local and national levels. Under the Dome made the Chinese government look inefficient and contradictory and the obvious culprit was the powerful energy arms of the Chinese government. In the documentary, an official from China’s National Development and Reform Commission even compared the companies to naughty children:

Say you only have one child and this child is picking up some bad behaviors. As his mother, what can you do? All you can do is give him one good beating, but you can’t beat him every day.

After being shown under such an unfavorable light, it is not surprising that both SOEs initiated damage control. Though it is impossible to say exactly what kind of machinations went on behind the scenes to get the film censored, it can be safely assumed that both of the major energy companies had some influence in the decision.


So, what does this censorship mean for Chai Jing, Under the Dome and China more broadly?

Firstly, international exposure. Stories and issues that are banned in China naturally drive traffic to foreign sources for explanations. These foreign news services might even be banned in China, but that does not stop them from reporting on China issues and Chinese citizens consuming their content. Though they can be time-consuming and annoying, there are plenty of ways around the Great Firewall, including VPN services that reroute IP addresses to various locations around the world. This has allowed the video to spread to thousands of different sites, making it impossible to shut down every single one. Now that Chai Jing’s documentary has gained international exposure, there is no viable way for the government to completely contain it.

Secondly, Under the Dome has paved the way for other issues to come to the forefront of Chinese life. An example is the documentary that spread throughout the Chinese internet shortly after Under the Dome, called Coming Home. This short movie documents the difficulties of two mothers coming to terms with their homosexual sons, and the difficulty for their sons to admit to this reality in a politically Communist but ideologically conservative country.

China has made some massive strides on societal issues in the past 20 years, but there is still plenty of pressure LGBT individuals face from family and society. The video racked up over 100 million views within a few days; the mere fact that the issue has made it into the public sphere testifies to China's progress in recent decades.

Both Under the Dome and Coming Home are great examples of grassroots sentiments starting to mould a nation. They are the proof that Chinese society is slowly but surely willing to open up and discuss the difficult and controversial topics that circumscribe it.

Under the Dome is also important because China does not exist in a vacuum. With pollution, what happens in one country does not necessarily stay there. According to the New York Times, there has been research that the rampant pollution problem in China is impacting the environment in other parts of the world:

Alex L. Wang, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies Chinese environmental policy, said after reading the paper: "This is a reminder to us that a significant percentage of China’s emissions of traditional pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions are connected to the products we buy and use every day in the U.S. We should be concerned, not only because this pollution is harming the citizens of China, but because it’s damaging the air quality in parts of the U.S."

China’s environmental problems are not simply a Chinese problem. They threaten their immediate neighbors as well as the rest of the globe. With her critical documentary, Chai Jing has spurred us all to open up our eyes and turn our focus towards a very pressing dilemma.