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China's 'Inconvenient Truth:' Anti-Pollution Documentary Goes Viral

03/02/2015 01:06 pm ET | Updated Mar 02, 2015

BEIJING -- Public revulsion over China’s putrid air has been mounting for years, and now the country might have its gotten its own version of "An Inconvenient Truth."

In a new documentary titled “Under the Dome,” one of the country’s most famous journalists reveals the dire state of air pollution in China and issues a searing indictment of the hapless bureaucracies that she says have crippled environmental enforcement.

The 104-minute film was released online on Saturday, and has already racked up over 100 million hits on Chinese video sites.

In the film, investigative reporter Chai Jing weaves together her personal struggle to protect her newborn daughter from pollution with broader investigative probes of the country’s coal, steel and oil industries. The documentary bears similarities to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth": Chai, like Gore, uses a multimedia PowerPoint presentation to explain the science, economics and politics of China’s pollution crisis.

Chinese skies are some of the most polluted in the world, thanks to widespread use of low-quality coal and gasoline. Pollution is heaviest in China’s industrial north, and extreme pollution episodes in Beijing recently led the mayor to declare the city “unlivable.”

chai jing chart

In "Under the Dome," investigative reporter Chai Jing tells the story of how her daughter's birth inspired her drive to understand China's pollution crisis.

Chai rose to prominence as an investigative reporter in Chinese state media, where she produced groundbreaking reports on pollution in her home province of Shanxi and on China's gay community. After having her first child last year, she resigned from her role in state media. The former China Central Television star said in an interview that the film was produced independently and financed with over $150,000 of her own money.

Central to the emotional impact of “Under the Dome” is the story of Chai’s daughter, who was born with a benign tumor that the film implies was connected to air pollution. Chai describes the anxiety of watching her daughter grow up in Beijing and the fears that force her to keep her daughter holed up in the house for much of the year.

“Every day when I woke up this year the first thing I’ve done is check the air quality index on my phone. I arrange my life around that number,” Chai says. “When I take my daughter out to get her vaccinations, I’m afraid just seeing her smile. To tell the truth, it’s not that I’m so afraid of death. It’s that I don’t want to live this way.”

china pollution children

A child who contracted pneumonia before ever leaving the hospital.

The title of the documentary references a sci-fi series by Stephen King about a town encased in a glass bubble, which Chai compares to the way she has to keep her daughter inside the house on polluted days.

Among other damning statistics, Chai cites studies linking air pollution to over 500,000 premature deaths in China every year.

Praise, as well as some criticism, of the documentary dominated Chinese social networks over the weekend. Despite its critical stance, the film appears to have the support of key parts of China’s government bureaucracy. China’s newly appointed Minister of Environmental Protection, a former environmental scientist named Chen Jining, compared the film to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the 1962 investigation of pesticides that helped launch America’s environmental movement.

Chen also told media that he sent Chai a text to thank her for her work on the film.

In state-controlled media, the reaction has been mixed. The leading Communist Party-controlled newspaper devoted a special web page to the film and published a lengthy interview with Chai. However, propaganda authorities are also reportedly attempting to minimize coverage across Chinese media.

To investigate the roots of the air pollution crisis, Chai accompanied inspectors from the Ministry of Environmental Protection on trips to heavily polluting steel mills. Her investigations and interviews convey a sense of helplessness on the part of China’s environmental regulators. At one point, Chai questions a regulator about rampant violations of China’s fuel standards, suggesting that the MEP is failing to enforce the law -- and the bureaucrat agrees.

“You have no teeth when it comes to enforcing the law,” Chai says.

“Right now I can’t even open my mouth because I’m afraid people will see I have no teeth,” the regulator replies. “Isn’t that the embarrassment of the environmental protection?”

China’s leading state oil companies, SinoPec and PetroChina, are singled out for criticism as well. Chai accuses the companies of wielding their outsized influence to lower standards for automobile fuel. Suggesting that the state-controlled duopoly over key Chinese energy markets has stifled innovation, she calls for the energy sector to be opened up to competition.

birds nest split

Beijing's "Birds Nest" stadium as seen on a clear and heavily polluted day.

The film's release comes less than a week before the commencement of China's annual National People's Congress legislative session. Heightened discussion of pollution will likely bolster the central government's ongoing efforts to radically restructure China’s heaviest polluting industries.

For years, China closely guarded its data on air pollution, even accusing the U.S. Embassy in Beijing of interfering in the country's internal affairs simply for publishing air quality readings. But after a series of extreme air pollution events (popularly dubbed "Airpocalypse") hit the capital in 2013, Beijing opened up its data and launched a national "war on air pollution." That campaign has focused on closing the heaviest polluting entities in neighboring Hebei Province and calling for strict limits on coal burning across the country.

Government pollution controls and collapsing steel markets led China’s total coal use to decline in 2014, a landmark environmental achievement that has come at the cost of huge job losses in steel and cement factories in China’s struggling rust belt. That wrenching transition is forcing the Communist Party to face a trade-off between clean air for its citizens and social stability in factory towns facing economic extinction.

In "Under the Dome," Chai interviews one MEP official in charge of environmental enforcement of steel factories in Hebei Province, which neighbors Beijing and is home to seven of China’s ten most polluted cities.

“Why can’t you just close [the polluting factories] down?” Chai asks.

“You’ve got to be joking,” replies Xiong Yuehui. “Each 10 million tons of steel are responsible for 100,000 jobs. What level has steel production in Hebei gotten to? It’s gotten to the level where you can’t simply ban it.”

Wayne Chang contributed research from Hong Kong.

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