Tea Leaf Nation

In About-Face, Chinese Censors Nix Coverage of Environmental Film

As suddenly as it began, the national conversation about pollution in China has been scrubbed.

Chai Jing cover 2 copy


This article has been updated.

Possibly spooked by overwhelming citizen reaction to a documentary about environmental pollution, Chinese authorities have just thrown their massive propaganda apparatus into reverse. Just days ago, the release of a hard-hitting documentary about China’s deadly pollution, Under the Dome, sparked a long-awaited national conversation about the bleak state of China’s environment. State media even seemed to support it, with one nationalist outlet labeling criticism of the film “unpatriotic.” But in a major and sudden about-face, Chinese authorities have issued a directive ordering the end of coverage, and media platforms are now rushing to scrub once-ubiquitous references to the film, in the process quashing a nascent but earnest national dialogue.

Almost as soon as it was released on Feb. 28, Under the Dome, an Inconvenient Truth-style documentary financed by one of China’s most famous journalists, took the Chinese web by storm. Within 24 hours, the film was viewed over 100 million times. By the evening of March 1, discussion of the film dominated social media platforms. The film takes the format of a TED-style public speech given by well-known journalist Chai Jing, interspersed with video interviews, charts, animated shorts, and other visual aids. In a simple white blouse and faded blue jeans, Chai stands before an audience of a few hundred and speaks about her yearlong investigation, undertaken in 2014, into the root causes of China’s air pollution, which has for years plagued hundreds of millions.

She attributed much of the pollution to China’s voracious energy consumption, 60 percent of which was dirty coal and substandard diesel and gasoline. The documentary cited environmental statistics that are usually difficult or impossible to access in China’s often opaque bureaucracy, and in a rare move, the film even called out two of China’s big state-run oil companies for their refusal to comply with environmental standards. The sulfur content in the best quality diesel in China, according to Chai, is over 25 times the standard in the EU, Japan, and the United States.

Chai pointed to structural problems within the Chinese system, particularly how the powerful drivers of development like local governments and state-owned enterprises, could steamroll over China’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ding Yan, an EPA official, told Chai that existing interest groups maneuvered to defang a particular section in China’s 2002 Air Protection Law during the legislative process. “So the EPA has no teeth?” Chai asked Ding, channeling the frustration of her audience. “I can’t even open my mouth because I’m afraid that people would see that we have no teeth,” replied Ding with a wry smile.

The film seemed to have government backing from the get-go. Major state-run outlets such as Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, state news agency Xinhua, and the reliably nationalist Global Times gave full coverage to the film. Since Feb. 28, the People’s Daily alone published dozens of articles supporting Chai’s film and even featured the film on its official website.

That all changed in an instant. According to the U.S.-based China Digital Times, on Mar. 3 propaganda authorities circulated an official directive requiring websites to “absolutely discontinue coverage” of the film, and to remove any special features. Major media outlets immediately complied. Almost all People’s Daily articles mentioning Chai or her film have now been removed, as have some related posts from the Global Times and Xinhua. The Global Times had provided Chai with strong cover when it wrote on social network Weibo that criticizing Chai for taking on state enterprises “is not a patriotic thing to do.” Those public messages have since disappeared. And by Mar. 6, the video could no longer viewed on major video streaming platforms such as Youku, Tudou, and iQiyi.

The volte-face comes at a sensitive time for China. This week, the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislative body, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference convene, an advisory body, in Beijing. It’s the closest that China’s one-party system has to a political season, as over 2,000 delegates flood the capital city and discuss (pre-vetted) issues facing the country. The Mar. 3 official directive cited the need to create a “favorable atmosphere of public opinion” in preparation for upcoming annual meetings of the as the reason for the censorship. And the directive stated that authorities aimed to “prevent the dilution” of items on the meetings’ agenda.

The party has shown in the past a limited tolerance for grassroots calls for change that it itself intends to direct. For example, Chinese President Xi Jinping initiated a sweeping campaign against government corruption, long a major complaint among China’s citizens. Yet the top-down anti-corruption sweep has paralleled a crackdown on grassroots anti-corruption activists, even jailing some of these activists as recently as June 2014. With media support now withdrawn, it’s possible that authorities underestimated the massive outpouring of public support for Chai’s film, and are now pulling back at the reins.

Yet even before the Mar. 3 directive, there were signs that authorities were attempting to limit online discussion. “Chai Jing” became one of Weibo’s most-censored search terms on Mar. 1, and the next day both “dome” and “haze” were top-censored terms, according to Weiboscope, a project of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center that monitors censorship on Weibo.

Although the online discussion has been cut short, netizens are calling for even bigger outlets to broadcast the film. Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken real estate tycoon known for making bold political statements, called for CCTV itself to broadcast the Under the Dome, and others called for movie theaters to showcase it. Discussion of Chai’s film might be vanishing from Chinese cyberspace, but the pollution isn’t going away so easily – which means Chinese are likely to continue talking about the problem, even if it’s behind closed doors.

Rachel Lu contributed research.

Photo credit: QQ/Fair use

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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