Tea Leaf Nation

China’s National Conversation on Pollution Has Finally Begun

An "Inconvenient Truth"-style documentary has hundreds of millions suddenly talking.

Chai Jing Cover

China is talking about its pollution crisis — all because of one moving film by a famous television journalist, and a little help from China’s state media apparatus. It started on Feb. 28, when Chai Jing, one of China’s best-known journalists and a best-selling author, unveiled a self-financed documentary, Under the Dome, online. The 103-minute film details Chai’s yearlong investigation into the root causes of China’s now infamous air pollution and touches on the way in which pollution has affected her own family. Even for a country with a population of 1.3 billion, the reception has been nothing short of astonishing. In less than 24 hours, the video garnered over 100 million views across major Chinese video-streaming sites. Tellingly, the film debuted on the website of People’s Daily, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, and major state-owned news outlets have interviewed Chai and promoted discussion of her work, signaling approval from the highest levels of government.

In a style similar to Al Gore’s 2006 influential environmental documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Chai’s Under the Dome integrates various interviews and statistics with a keynote speech Chai delivered to a live audience this January in a film studio in Beijing. The 39-year-old journalist, who hails from the large, coal-mining province of Shanxi and has lived in smog-smothered Beijing for over a decade, started her January talk by calling the fight against China’s increasingly nasty air pollution “a personal grudge.” In 2004, she said, she went to Shanxi as state media China Central Television (CCTV)’s investigative journalist. In a particularly powerful sequence, Chai asked a 6-year-old girl whether she has ever seen stars or clouds in the sky. The girl said she had not.

Ten years later, with the number of smoggy days increasing in Beijing, Chai said she realized that air pollution was no longer a problem only for her home province, but a nationwide issue that could impact generations. Chai said she had not been afraid of pollution until she became a mother. In 2014, after her newborn daughter was diagnosed with a benign tumor unrelated to pollution, she decided to quit her job at CCTV and investigate the pollution’s cause. “Half of the days in 2014, I had to confine my daughter to my home like a prisoner because the air quality in Beijing was so poor,” Chai said. “One morning I saw my daughter banging on the window…. The day will come when she asks me, ‘Why do you keep me here? What is going to hurt me when I go outside?’”

Chai went on to explain the causes of smog by showing interviews with scientists and regulators, factory visits, and myriad charts and statistics. She highlighted the major problems with the burning of coal and oil in China, which, according to Chai, accounts for 60 percent of the country’s air pollution. Chai stated that China is not only burning massive quantities of coal and oil but low-quality, dirty fossil fuel that disproportionally produces pollutants. Existing regulations, Chai added, often aren’t enforced.

In a rare move for Chinese journalists, Chai also criticized China’s two most powerful state-owned oil companies for resisting tougher fuel standards. Chai played a recording of an anonymous official from the powerful National Development and Reform Commission who said that Sinopec and CNPC, respectively the third and fourth companies on the Fortune 500 list, had threatened to cut off supply when state environmental authorities sought to raise fuel standards, which would also have raised fuel prices. “Shouldn’t Sinopec, a giant state-owned enterprise with more than $400 billion in revenue last year, take some social responsibility?” Chai asked.

Chai’s talk also detailed visits Los Angeles and London, two cities with some success combating air pollution. To her surprise, she discovered that China already possesses clean technology, and similar regulations, at least on paper. Chai said the problem was that Chinese regulators either lacked the power they needed or were lax in their enforcement. Other causes of air pollution include excess heavy industry production and an obsession with building the next “metropolitan city,” a phrase often used by local officials in their vows. Chai urged more grassroots action, like calling China’s national environmental protection hotline in the event of violations and using public transportation whenever possible. At the end of her speech, Chai turned around to face the screen behind her that showed a rotating Earth. “One day, I will leave this world. But my child will still live here,” she said. The in-studio audience was visibly engaged, and some appeared to have tears in their eyes. 

The national online discourse that took place over the weekend is the largest China has ever seen on the issue of environmental protection. Under the Dome has not only been viewed over 100 million times on Chinese streaming sites and become the most-searched term on Baidu, China’s most popular search engine; it’s also prompted an online conversation about Chai’s work. After Chai posted her documentary to Weibo, China’s massive social media platform, users shared it over 580,000 times. One of the most popular comments to the post read, “I don’t need China to be number one. Can we slow down our economic development and really deal with pollution?” In another, a user with almost 2 million followers shared Chai’s words that “history is created” when “individuals stand up to take action.”

State media is also actively promoting Chai’s documentary in what looks like a coordinated campaign. People’s Daily not only dedicated a special feature to the film on its website but also shared it on Weibo and called for more effective governance in an op-ed supporting Chai. Even the hard-line, nationalist state-run paper Global Times defended her. “Criticizing [Chai] for pointing out the problems of state-owned enterprises … is not a patriotic thing to do.”

Signs are proliferating that the Chinese government is acknowledging the severity of air pollution and actively trying to curb it. In March 2014, Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war on pollution.” In November, China reached a climate deal with the U.S. that Secretary of State John Kerry called “historic” – China intends to achieve the peak of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. In a March 1 press conference, Chen Jining, the newly appointed party chief of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, praised Chai’s documentary, which he said he had watched in full and which reminded him of American marine biologist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring. “Just like [Carson], she did an admirable job of raising public awareness of environmental issues,” he said. “I’m grateful to her.” It was Chen’s first press conference in his new position; he was approved just one day before Under the Dome first aired.

China’s two major political meetings — the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, colloquially known as the lianghui — will convene next week in Beijing. The timing of Under the Dome’s release, intentional or not, has led many online to wonder whether the issue of environmental protection will be a focus there. The well-connected and savvy Chai may have engaged a fraught topic, but it’s clear she has done so with no intention of becoming a dissident.

Chai is used to the spotlight: In 2001, she began hosting one of CCTV’s news shows. Throughout the ensuing decade, she was one of the most recognizable frontline CCTV investigative journalists reporting on disasters and social problems such as coal mine disasters, earthquakes, and SARS, the deadly epidemic that killed more than 700 around the world in 2003. Her fame shot even higher in 2013 with the publication of her best-selling memoir Kanjian, or “Bearing Witness,” named after her show on CCTV, that chronicled a decade worth of investigations, interviews, and heartfelt personal reflections about China’s social ills. Chai vanished from the public eye for much of 2013 and 2014, weathering rumors that she had given birth in the United States, a highly controversial choice given her public persona as a compassionate voice for China’s common people.

The outpouring of support for Chai’s work underscores how for the average Chinese, air pollution is no longer a topic of academic inquiry but rather a tangible issue with real, significant consequences. Air pollution has been linked to a spike in lung cancer in Beijing and has been claimed to reduce life expectancy in some regions by 5.5 years. According to China’s official statistics, only eight of China’s 74 major cities met the country’s air quality standards in 2014. (Even that was an improvement from 2013, when only three did.) Severe air pollution plagued not only northern China, the coal-mining region, but also coastal cities in the south such as Shanghai. The manufacture and sale of facemasks and air filters are becoming competitive industries unto themselves, while air quality apps routinely top the Chinese charts in Apple’s online App Store.

It remains unclear how soon needed change will take place, and at what cost. The transition to what officials call a “low-carbon economy” faces numerous obstacles. Chinese bureaucrats fear hindering growth, which may imperil their career prospects or lead to social instability should jobs in the areas they govern become too scarce. A 2014 reduction in heavy industry production in Hebei, one of China’s most polluted provinces, was estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs, consequences state media dubbed “the pains of transition.” Massive state-owned enterprises in heavy industry employ millions and wield great clout.

Indeed, while Chai has enjoyed massive recent support, she’s not without her critics. On social media, some have complained her report merely scratches the surface — surely true, but hardly fair, given the scope of the topic Chai engages. Others have called her a hypocrite for giving birth in the United States and now “pretending” to care about China’s problems. One prominent critique, by no means unique, accused Chai of “reflecting the interests and viewpoints of the urban middle class” and giving insufficient weight to the interests and habits of working-class Chinese, many of whom may depend on high-polluting industries for employment. Yet even many of these critics believe that by raising an important issue, Chai’s documentary will ultimately do more good than harm.

Chai did not respond to a Foreign Policy request for comment, but it’s clear she remains hopeful. During an interview with People’s Daily on Feb. 28, she said she was sanguine because every expert and regulator she spoke to while researching her documentary was open and direct; some were so eager to help that they even sent her article links late at night. “To put it simply, everyone wants to have clean air,” Chai said. “What is a social consensus? There is no consensus stronger than this one. That’s why I’m optimistic.”

Rachel Lu contributed research.

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