How Social Media Is Taking on the Environment in China

03/16/2015 05:14 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015
CHAI JING

china focus

BEIJING -- Nearly one year after the Chinese government officially declared a "war against pollution," a documentary about China's smog titled "Under the Dome" hit the country like a whirlwind.

Released on Feb. 28, a few days ahead of the annual session of the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, the 104-minute video was viewed over 71 million times in the first 24 hours and discussions and debates on the film and its producer Chai Jing, a former TV presenter, have been continuing on various social media.

Smog and air pollution has long been a hot issue in China, while "APEC blue," a term that emerged following efforts to cut emissions so as to guarantee the air quality for the duration of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings held in Beijing last November, became a new catch phrase for "something beautiful but transient, almost like an illusion."

In this context, "Under the Dome," was created from the perspective of a new mother worrying about the environment for the growth of her baby daughter. It was based on journalistic investigations on domestic and international sources for the origin and solutions of smog, no doubt carrying weight and a striking impact.

By all means, Chai Jing, who made a fame for her coverage of SARS in 2003 while working with CCTV, China's leading media network, was actually giving a massive open online course to the whole nation via her new film. Many experts in documentary and behind the scenes have become her teaching assistants; they are now given an outlet to vent their differing views on an issue of public concern to an unprecedentedly huge audience because of "Under the Dome."

The fact that so many people watch and talk about it in itself has evidenced the success of the smog documentary, whether it is praised or criticized. But beyond the smog the film is focused on, some messages behind the scene are also interesting.

For one thing, the film displays the growing power of social media in China today. It is not a production of any official filmmaking companies, whose products have traditionally dominated the Chinese TV and film screens. This dominance, however, has been challenged by the rising mobile internet and social media. With an exploding 730 million user accounts of mobile Internet in 2014, more and more Chinese individuals are putting up their self-made videos on entertaining portals like youku and iQiyi, some becoming instant hits online. That Chai Jing chose to release "Under the Dome" on social media rather than conventional networks like CCTV, her former employer, once again proved the strength of these alternative media.

The speed and effects of netizen conversations and communication from these unofficial sources of media are also surprising. Without any formal announcement, the documentary was passed on among numerous circles of friends on WeChat, a mobile text and voice messaging communication service provided by Tencent, which claims over 600 million user accounts, including 100 million outside China.

In my own dozen circles of friends on WeChat, each having a membership ranging from 16 to 200, eight had the full-length "Under the Dome" uploaded within the first 24 hours after its release. Almost all started a debate about its merits and faults right away. That was how I got to know all about this documentary and its impact. Traditional media could only envy such effects profound effects on the public discussion.

Another point to note is the government's attitude. Chai Jing said all her interviews and investigations were conducted in her own name, without any official title, and none of the people, either from academic or governmental functioning institutions, declined her requests. "They had no reservation in their replies to my questions, but faced them squarely," she told a reporter from the People's Daily website. "I feel they all wished to have a public discussion of these problems."

The environmental protection departments that are presented as "lacking teeth" in their enforcement of laws against pollution in the documentary obviously welcome this film. Chen Jining, an environmental scientist who assumed the post of Minister of Environmental Protection one month before its release, took the initiative to contact Chai Jing after watching the film online, and sent a text message to her expressing his appreciation. At a press conference before the NPC's annual session in early March, he reiterated Premier Li Keqiang's swear a year ago that China's environment watchdogs should "control the pollution with an iron fist."

Chai said she sent all the data she had gathered to the legislation departments as reference for their revision of the law on prevention and control of air pollution and drafting of national programs on restructuring oil and gas industries. "Their reaction was surprisingly positive," she told the People's Daily website reporter. This kind of interaction between citizens and government departments is certainly encouraging to anyone endeavoring to build democracy in China.

Also noteworthy is the growing strength of non-governmental environmental organizations in China today. Although some people compare "Under the Dome" to Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" in 1962, there is a difference between the two despite their possibly similar impact on society. If Carson was a vanguard in heralding an environmental movement with her book 53 years ago, Chai Jing is arguably a product of such a movement that preceded her documentary for more than two decades.

For instance, the pollution map she used in the documentary is designed and put forward by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a non-profit organization set up in 2006 to monitor corporate environmental performance with its pollution database. It has formed a coalition with other NGOs throughout China to promote a global green supply chain by involving the public to push large corporations to concentrate on environmental performance of their suppliers. Chai confessed that she was unaware of the air pollution problem 10 years ago, when many environmentalists had already made a loud cry against it in China. But a celebrity like Chai Jing joining in the movement certainly adds tremendous weight to it, especially with such a striking documentary.

Lastly, the investigative effort is a notable sign of pursuing authentic journalism among some news people in China in the past few years. An obvious side effect of the rise of social media is the fragmentation of information and capricious moods among many media workers. Pressures of deadlines, commercialism and other factors have reduced reporting to a fast food like business, with many reports coming out quick but shallow.

Amidst this media atmosphere, Chai Jing and her team spent one year digging into various data and information about smog, and turned out something with depth and insight -- all with her own expenses. And she is not the first to do so. Before her, Cui Yongyuan, also a former CCTV presenter and celebrity, made a self-funded investigative video on genetically modified technology in farming in 2013, which is also controversial and influential.

Both might represent a trend to follow the emerging trend of slow journalism, which features a desire to seek truth from facts with a down-to-earth attitude, regardless of timeliness and concerns of economic returns.

Such an effort is indeed worth of applause.