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Environment

Why the Chinese Government Made an Environmental Documentary Vanish

The smog in Beijing is bad, but the incompetent official attempts to clean it up have been worse.
April 16, 2015, 4:12pm
Beijing smog. Photo via Flickr user Caitriana Nicholson

If you live in China, there's a good chance you've already watched Under the Dome, Chai Jing's viral 104-minute lecture on the country's postapocalyptic smog.

If you didn't get around to it when it came out, though you're out of luck: After less than a week and a few hundred million views in late February and early March, the documentary abruptly disappeared from web sites and search engines. Apparently under orders from the central propaganda department, state media dropped all mention and returned to serious journalism, like calling Uncle Sam a butt.

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Of course the rest of the world—and Chinese users with naughty software—can still watch the whole thing.

The air people breathe in China is the source of some pretty major problems. Most Beijingers are accustomed to using a breathing mask for the sulfurous murk we call "outdoors." Instead of the weather, our awkward small talk on any given day is about PM 2.5 particles and the Air Quality Index (AQI). As in: "Hey, you want to hit the park this weekend? The AQI is supposed to go under 100."

Last year, the filthy air was so embarrassing that the government had to shut down the capital for a week in order to freshen up for visiting world leaders.

Still, I didn't expect the film to get the memory hole treatment. Pollution is not a state secret here, and Chai Jing, the former TV reporter who made Under the Dome, knew which lines she could cross. The film doesn't challenge the political system; instead, much of her message is ordinary, drive-less-and-bike-more environmentalism. There's lots of saccharine music and cute animations. The closest she comes to rebellion is when she tells the audience to nag their local polluters.

The biggest revelation is the government's hilarious incompetence. Behind China's authoritarian facade, Chai uncovered a bureaucracy that's too invertebrate to enforce its own laws. As she says in the film:

This [Atmospheric Pollution Law] can only be enforced by the departments with the legal right of supervision." Everyone says, "I don't know which department that is." Since there are only a few departments related to automotive management, I just called them one by one. First I asked the Ministry of Environmental Protection. They said, "As far as we know, it's not us." Then I asked the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. They said, "It's definitely not us." Then I asked the General Administration of Quality Supervision and Inspection. They said: "It should be all three of us."

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I never expected a two-minute video clip to capture the experience of living here so perfectly. US Congress, take heart: There's someone worse at running a country than you.

One can't help cringing in sympathy for the throngs of environmental regulators who appear before the camera, each of whom wryly admits their own impotence. "There is nothing we can do if [polluting] enterprises don't stop," one says. "I don't dare open my mouth," says another. "I fear that people will see I have no teeth."

The best (or worst) of the would-be-funny-if-it weren't-true moments comes when we find out why China uses such shitty fuel: the fuel standards are set by the oil industry.

"When convening a committee to set petroleum standards, you shouldn't be looking for someone who doesn't understand the oil refining business," the committee's chairman—a veteran, along with most of the standards committee, of the notoriously corrupt state oil monopoly—says in the film.

Still, I didn't understand why Under the Dome was worth banning, and I wasn't the only one puzzled. "This is particularly ironic when one-third of Chinese netizens have already seen the film," one Greenpeace representative said by email. "You cannot censor the smog."

Local activists are reluctant to speak openly about the film, given its sensitive subject. In Beijing, many environmental organizations exist in a precarious legal limbo between recognition and proscription, and it is not uncommon for foreign workers to leave on "visa runs" at 90-day intervals if their NGOs can't get work visas. Some have been deported.

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I recently met Leon White, an expat who lives in Beijing and works on environmental causes, to talk about the film. I figured he'd have some insight—he's one of the 50 or so volunteers who spontaneously translated the film's English subtitles after seeing a request for help in the initial clip's YouTube comments.

"I think the government misread how much people care about the pollution," he told me. "When it took off< the way it did, and didn't die down even after a few days, they had to kill it to free up airwaves for the political meeting that was on the next weekend.

"I personally think the government was pushing it as a kind of semaphore," he speculated. "They were probably hoping to have something not obviously official to point to as justification for an upcoming policy, but the story became about the documentary itself, they were losing control of the media narrative, and so first tried to turn the volume down, then pulled the plug."

White told me that environmentalists working in China have to navigate a sometimes complicated network of interests. "Nominally or actually independent pressure groups also get a fair bit of leeway, and do valuable work," he said. "It's the local groups below the radar of the big national ministries that often end up getting intimidated."

According to White, the biggest culprits are usually "local officials who feel that some cushy deal they have going is threatened."

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He gave the example of a local activist near Shanghai, who "just keeps getting thrown in jail and diagnosed with mental illness" after reporting polluters to the police. "I doubt anything has changed since then."

White's take is consistent with the tangled bureaucracy depicted in the documentary. "Agencies responsible for inspection have no meaningful recourse in the case of non-compliance," he said. When they issue fines, "they have no means to collect."

Even given all that, and the fact that the government just censored a documentary about the environment, White seemed relatively optimistic about the future.

"Policy is already in line with international best practices" he said. "The entire system is just waiting for enforcement and management. The law needs to be worth more than the paper it's written on."

Recent changes in the government have suggested a policy shift. The government released promoted the Environmental Protection offices to full ministry status and appointed a new leader, Chen Jining.

"I expect the first changes to be stricter enforcement of Environmental Impact Assessments," White said.

If he's right, China may have the beginnings of an environmental reform movement somewhere on the murky horizon. Until then, we'll just have to tighten our breathing masks.

As I write this, today's AQI is 215—"Very unhealthy."