BEIJING, March 7 (Reuters) - A popular documentary on China's struggles with pollution was inaccessible on the country's video sharing websites on Saturday, sparking concern from Chinese Internet users that it had been censored within a week of its launch.
"Under the Dome," a film by journalist Chai Jing that explains air pollution in straightforward terms, spurred a national debate after its release last weekend and quickly garnered hundreds of millions of views on streaming video sites.
Its removal will likely be seen as underscoring the government's prime focus on maintaining social stability. The ruling Communist Party has previously described tackling pollution as a top priority and promised greater transparency on the subject.
Just on Thursday, at the opening of the annual session of parliament, Premier Li Keqiang called pollution a blight on people's lives and vowed to step up efforts to combat it.
Chen Jining, newly-appointed party chief of the Ministry of Environmental Protection attends a press conference on March 1, 2015 in Beijing. (ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
In a sign of the sensitivity around the issue, no reporters from major foreign news outlets were called on to ask a question at a news conference held by the environment minister on Saturday. The issue of Chai's film being pulled from the Internet did not come up in the questions that were asked.
The film started becoming inaccessible on the country's biggest online video sharing websites late on Friday.
By Saturday morning, it was inaccessible on all the major video sites, as well as a number of smaller video sites, with users getting error messages when they tried to play it.
Neither internet regulator the Cyberspace Administration of China, nor the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television responded to requests for comment.
Youku Tudou Inc, Tencent Holdings Ltd, Sohu.com Inc and iQiyi, the online video service of Baidu Inc, which operate video streaming services, also did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did Chai, the filmmaker.
Smog on the banks of Songhua River on January 22, 2015 in Jilin, China. (ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)
The website of Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, which had originally posted the video on its site, did not answer repeated calls requesting comment.
China operates one of the world's most sophisticated online censorship mechanisms, known as the Great Firewall. Censors keep a grip on what can be published online, particularly content seen as potentially undermining the Communist Party.
Chai was a well-known journalist on state-run television before making the film, which was released just as China's leaders prepared to hold the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC) this week.
The disappearance of the video was met with anger from many Internet users.
"Some people have the power to completely smother Chai Jing's 'Under the Dome' on the Internet, but don't have the power to smother haze in this country," one Internet user said on the Twitter-like site, Weibo. (Reporting by Michael Martina, David Stanway and Paul Carsten in BEIJING and Engen Tham in SHANGHAI; Writing by Jason Subler; Editing by Robert Birsel and Mark Potter)