This article was also published on The Energy Collective.
Less than a week after People’s Daily Online, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party of China, released the air pollution documentary, Under the Dome, the government took steps to curtail the buzz. A leaked document from the Central Propaganda Department instructed media outlets to, “absolutely discontinue coverage of the documentary.” By Friday, the documentary was taken down from all Chinese websites. By that time, it had already been viewed by between 200 to 300 million people, more than half of China’s Internet users.
Created and financed by the former CCTV reporter, Chai Jing, Under the Dome has been compared to An Inconvenient Truth in its environmental content and format. The film features Chai Jing delivering a lecture from a stage with the aid of recorded interviews, graphs, educational cartoons, and short, investigative-style news stories in which she travels to sites in China and abroad, exploring the causes of China’s pollution and the solutions that other countries have found to their own pollution problems.
The documentary opens with Chai Jing telling her audience that concern about her unborn daughter’s illness motivated her interest China’s pollution. She poses three questions—what is pollution, where does it come from, and what can be done about it? The documentary takes shape around her investigation of these questions, and the answers that she finds. In telling her story about the origins of China’s pollution, Chai Jing would have had to tailor her message in order to gain some form of official sanction and ensure its release on People’s Daily Online. Remarkably, the film is able to maintain its integrity through the process. Chai Jing has managed to create a film that deftly pushes the boundaries of permitted protest and, despite its shortcomings, still emerges as a trenchant criticism of her society’s failures.
What is pollution?
For the purposes of her documentary, Chai Jing defines pollution as PM 2.5, or air pollution particles with a size of 2.5 microns or less that originate from a number of sources—fires, cars, coal dust, cooking oil. Exposure to PM 2.5 causes respiratory ailments, and increases the severity of asthma and bronchitis. It is linked to higher fatalities from lung cancer and heart disease. Due to the small size of the particles, some particulates are able to pass through the blood tissue and into the lungs, altering the balance of the human system in ways not understood or even studied medial science. Chai Jing has taken some criticism for implying that her daughter’s tumor was the result of pollution when a direct link cannot be proven. This criticism misses the mark. Beyond the chronic cough and irritated eyes that afflict so many Chinese urban residents, Chai Jing is absolutely right to raise the question of how else the pollution may be harming her family.
In 2008 the U.S. Embassy in Beijing placed a pollution monitor on its roof and released the results of the measurements through a mobile application. For the first time, reliable data on urban air quality was available to the public, and almost overnight, air pollution became a part of the consciousness of the urban middle class.
In asking, “What is pollution?” Chai Jing shares how her own investigation forced her to hold up a mirror to her own ignorance. Before she began to think deeply about the question, she thought of and reported on pollution as a problem that afflicted poorer satellite regions. She believed that urban air pollution was a more recent problem. “Isn’t it,” she asks her audience, “just in the last few years that we started hearing about air pollution?”
But as she looked, she realized that the data showed China’s pollution to be a long-standing problem. She gained access to internal statistics on links between air pollution and the high rates of lung cancer as far back as the mid-seventies contacted NASA and received satellite photographs of the north of China, showing heavy coal emissions as early as 2000, and extrapolated the PM 2.5 levels, not available until 2008, from earlier, less refined pollution measurements. Showing a picture of the Beijing airport in 2004, in which a worker sits in the foreground and behind him the ghostly outline of plane reveals itself through thick haze, Chai Jing tells of her shock in seeing this picture in 2014 and realizing, in hindsight, how obvious the pollution was, and yet she remained unaware.
Looking at the smog-shrouded picture that Chai Jing shows on the screen, one is hard pressed to credit her ignorance. I lived in Beijing in 2004 in a near-constant state of shock at what to me was not just the worst air pollution I had ever seen, but the worst I could imagine. The sense of unease caused by the pollution itself was heightened by what I interpreted as an equally pervasive phenomena of its denial, as through the particles in the air were not only choking out the oxygen, but reality itself. It did not occur to me then that what I was seeing was as much ignorance as denial. How, after all, could a whole society be ignorant of something as public, visible, and universal as smog?
The answer is as frightening as it is simple, or perhaps so frightening because it is so simple. “Look at the headlines at the time.” Chai says to her audience, before flashing on the screen a headline from 2004 that says, “Beijing airport closed due to fog.” But Chai has already shown that that government data itself clearly indicated that the north of China had had a deadly problem for decades. Chai does not accuse the government of lying to the public, nor does she have to. She simply presents, without much comment, that data that shows that it did. Her commentary focuses on her personal shortcomings; her surprise at her own naiveté, her shame at her professional failures as an investigative journalist for having missed the story. Her presentation is logical, innocent, and so sincere that one can almost see how People’s Daily, when it signed off on the documentary, might have missed just exactly what it was that it was about to unleash.
Where does it come from?
But after cracking open the ground, Chai steps back from the brink as she moves on to discuss the sources of pollution. Whereas the first section of her documentary had implications beyond her words, in the second section seems deliberately to cull the facts so as to limit the implications.
Take, for example, her decision to stick with PM 2.5 as a definition for pollution, a choice that precludes much discussion of climate change. Chai Jing’s focus is proximate causes of local health problems. Carbon dioxide’s impacts on local health are indirect, but climate change directly influences the negative effects of PM 2.5 emissions, as warmer weather increasing ozone formation from nitrogen dioxide emissions at the ground level. Even if Chai Jing had wanted to focus exclusively on health, climate change could have had a place. More significantly, the decision to largely elide the question of climate change allows her to focus on surface-level regulatory failures as a cause of pollution, rather than having to examine the deeper question of the structure of the energy economy and development strategy.
It may have been a tactical choice. According to the BBC, the documentary contained a section that highlighted the unsustainable trajectory of China’s development model, but that footage was cut from the final version. Some of the vestiges of this critique remain, if blunted. In discussing the number of cars on the road and their devastating consequences, Chai Jing highlights that China is just at the beginning stages of its car ownership. In discussing the consequences of China’s rapid development, she points out that there are many other countries still developing and at risk of using coal for their development trajectory. She calls out China’s energy use as wasteful in that is used to produce the raw materials that are then used to create urban developments in excess of existing demand. These points are raised, but often feel like dead ends. There is little follow through on their implications.
The thrust and sustained force of her criticism falls on the high amount of coal use, the lack desulfurization and vapor control technologies, and the comparatively unprocessed, and therefore dirty state of coal and oil when it is burned. Some of these shortcomings are a question of low regulatory standards, others a question of lack of enforcement of existing laws.
The simple reason for this is corruption, though Chai Jing by and large does not call it out as such. She focuses instead on historical factors that resulted in the oil companies having too many seats on the committee that sets the standards for fuel. She is shown interviewing officials who claim that the Ministry of Environmental Protection does not have expertise to set the fuel standards itself; therefore, it needs the help of industry. This dynamic is specific not just to China. The corruption of standards to protect public health in favor of industry would sound familiar to anyone familiar with the negotiated rulemaking process in United States. Still, the film holds up the public commenting process in the United States and Europe as examples for Chinese regulators to follow. And while there is no doubt that the United States and Europe have better outcomes than China for the greater transparency of their processes process, the process is often imperfect, and the public often remains unprotected. It is hard to discuss these drawbacks without opening a discussion about influence peddling and corruption. But that discussion, except in the case of a cursory mention of Chinese oil monopolies, a target at which the Chinese government has already publicly taken aim, is largely off limits in this documentary.
Some Chinese “netizens” have written off Under the Dome as a piece of propaganda. This charge could seem bewildering given the direct nature of some of the film’s criticism of the Chinese governance system, not to mention the fact that it has now been fully censored on the Chinese Internet. The apparent contradiction highlights the peculiar nature of Chinese protest and the balancing act that activists must carry out in order tailor their message to government priorities enough to have it heard, while still managing to say something that is strong enough to ignite public opinion and have some influence on what is permitted and what is proscribed. This is a different form of a tension that would be familiar to any activist, regardless of their country. How much can public opinion be pushed without causing a backlash? The different dimension to this in China is that the government is the direct arbiter of public opinion, and so the government’s opinion must be minded.
But for this reason, the government’s limited thinking on energy policy is on display in Under the Dome in a way that, at times, seems unsavory. This is never clearer that in the section on ‘clean energy’ recommendations, which plays almost like an infomercial for natural gas, or a hit piece on the Chinese oil monopolies. With triumphant, upbeat music playing in the background, Chai shows charts and interviews all making the point that China’s oil and natural gas industry lag behind the rest of the world, that innovation is needed, and that that innovation is being blocked by China’s oil monopolies.
The United States’ technology-driven adventure in hydraulically fractured gas and oil shale has, unfortunately, has inspired a lot of hand-wringing in countries all over the world who are wondering if they can or should be doing the same. China is no exception. It sees natural gas development as a primary conduit for reducing its massive coal consumption. While American companies are now helping China to develop their shale gas reserves, exploitation of natural gas in China has been thwarted by inability of Chinese energy majors to master the technology. There is no question that Under the Dome sells this narrative in a slick package. This is a pity because shale oil and gas development are a folly for China. This is the case first because China does not have the same unconventional shale resources of the United States to merit the investment, and second because unconventional resource development is water intensive and China does not have water, and third because transitioning to natural gas is a half-measure in achieving climate change goals. Using gas as a way to get off of coal locks in long-term investments in carbon dioxide emitting fossil fuel power generation well beyond the point when they should be dramatically reduced or entirely eliminated. The United States had made this mistake and now China, in using the United States as a development model, is attempting to repeat it.
This theme is also apparent when Chai Jing discusses fuel economy standards and emissions controls for vehicles. In discussing a better model for China, she heads to Los Angeles where, she points out, car ownership has increased three-fold in since the fifties, but pollution has fallen by sixty-five percent. But cleaner is not clean. According to the American Lung Association, Los Angeles has the worst smog in the United States, routinely achieving ozone levels that are harmful to human health. It has no place as a model in a documentary that focuses on clean air. That it is held up as a paragon certainly serves to underline how dire the air quality situation in China is, but it also underscores the lack of an ambitious or innovative plan for fixing it. But it should come come as no surprise that walking cities are not on the government’s agenda. As with the natural gas industry, the government sees the automotive industry as a key driver for growth in China, and it will need domestic markets in order to grow.
These choices likely indicate more about Chai Jing’s constraints than her own personal preferences. Those remain unknowable, obscured behind the official government line that in some parts of the documentary she is compelled to toe. But it does give an indication of China’s current development trajectory, and what comes through is incremental. These incremental changes will make China cleaner, but it will not make it clean. Moving away from coal can cut carbon dioxide emissions, but it will not be enough to slow dangerous climate change. Emissions standards on cars will make them cleaner, but it they will not stop traffic jams in cities, nor will they stop harming human health until they are fully electrified and backed by a clean grid.
Better environmental enforcement and strict use of end-of-pipe emissions controls are good things, but they should be used only in the absence of better options, not to make terrible technologies into mediocre ones. China’s goals of mitigating climate change and cleaning up its air would be better met through structural, rather than incremental change. Rather than follow the United States, China should acknowledge that its transportation and energy infrastructure follow an outmoded paradigm: a twentieth century development model that is ill-suited to the twenty-first century in which the China is emerging as an economic and political superpower.
What can be done?
Pollution is a difficult problem to solve, less from a technical standpoint then from a societal one. Alternatives to polluting always exist, but their implementations can alter the existing order of society and stir up its politics, power centers, and prejudices. Documentarians taking on pollution problems are faced with a quandary at the end of their films as to how to offer hope and actionable recommendations to the complex problems they have just spent an hour and a half illuminating. Within this constraint, the suggested remediation can seem unequal to the problem, as it did when Al Gore suggested to his audiences that they change their light bulbs and drive more efficient cars to solve climate change.
While on the surface Under the Dome’s solutions may seem also absurdly simple, in the context of Chinese society, they are anything but. Faced with a widespread lack of enforcement from government, Chai Jing asks her viewers to take matters into their own hands by either directly confronting non-complying business owners, or by dialing the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s hotline for violations if this fails.
The film shows Chai Jing modeling this behavior by walking into a building site were construction debris lies in an exposed heap—a major source of pollution in China—and asks the site manager to cover the debris as regulations require. Viewers are shown workers on the site covering the pile in short order. Chai Jing has won. She tells her audience, “It didn’t take more than five minutes to achieve this result.” In another intervention, she dials the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s hotline to report a restaurant that didn’t have a proper ventilation system installed the kitchen, and then again for gas station that does not have proper vapor controls on its gas pump.
It is hard to watch this video without wondering if the construction site manager or the Ministry of Environmental protection would have responded so quickly if Chai Jing were not a well-known television personality or had turned up without a camera crew. But Chai Jing too appears to be aware of her position. Recounting that the officials from the Ministry of Environmental protection told her that enforcement will respond one hundred percent of the time when the hotline is dialed, she wonders aloud to her audience, “Will they always come? I don’t know, but we can try.”
Chai Jing notes also that upon leaving the construction site where she successfully staged her intervention, a worker pulled her aside and said that the manager was afraid of her because she had a cell phone, and he was afraid that she might be filming. In telling this part of her story, she cannily conveys to her audience a tip that any good grassroots organizer would give to their trainees—record your actions; create a record both of the injustice and also of how you are treated while attempting to intervene.
This hotline, after all, is the number of the same Ministry of Environmental Protection that the documentary squarely blames for failing to enforce the law. But this, of course, is part of the intent of the action—first to remind the offenders that the citizenry knows that they are in violation of the law, and then to remind the enforcers of the same thing. In the one week that Under the Dome was available in China, the previously obscure hotline for the Ministry of Environmental Protection was advertised to almost 300 million viewers. Even if only ten percent of those viewers ever pick up the phone, the Ministry of Environment will have a very busy year. Why would the government publicize this message encouraging such direct action, even for one week? The Chinese government has long kept tight rein on environmental movements in China for their tendency to spill over into broader, democratic demands.
Elements of the central government are serious about environmental monitoring and reporting, but contrary to popular Western perception about the strength and centrality of the Chinese government, these changes are difficult to implement across the labyrinthine Chinese bureaucratic apparatus. In the past, the Chinese government has sanctioned citizen policing to enforce order in areas of the country or economy where it has weak control, sometimes to tragic effect. Popular outrage can be helpful in accomplishing autocratic ends, but it is also difficult to control. And so a week after Under the Dome enjoyed a government supported released, the experiment ended. The shutdown came several hundred million views too late. Chai Jing’s work has paid off—the box is now closed, but the genie has escaped already.