Under the Dome buzz: China’s ‘Silent Spring’ erupts online
In late February, ex-CCTV reporter Chai Jing’s documentary Under the Dome was watched more than 200 million times in just few days before it was censored on QQ, Youku and Youtube sites. In a forum reminiscent of TED talk conferences, the journalist directly addresses a studio audience to explain the number one scourge of China’s cities: air pollution, a topic suppressed for far too long by China’s media and government. What is the nature of air pollution? Where does it come from, and what is being done to address the critical problem? These are the main questions Chai Jing attempts to answer as the documentary oscillates between personal anecdotes, statistical data, investigative reporting, and animated simulations.
Adopting an unconventionally honest and critical tone, Chai delivers a rich argument on China’s increasingly critical pollution issues. In the documentary, Chai first stresses the widespread relevance of China’s air pollution issue by revealing precise scientific studies about the toxicity of minute PM 2.5 air particles. Then, without directly targeting or criticizing the Central government, she points at the system’s weaknesses by attacking oil and coal industries that repetitively and wantonly break environmental laws. Finally, she presents in-the-field testimonies of various diverse parties concerned with managing, treating, and living with air pollution: inhabitants of disaster areas, officials, environmental experts and the employees of industrial companies.
Through online social networks, the documentary provoked a media buzz among both Chinese citizens and political leaders, some who in fact supported Chai’s initiative. Indeed the new minister of the Environmental Protection, Chen Jining, praised the journalists’ work, as well as that of newspaper the People’s Daily, which dedicated a column to Chai.
The impact of the documentary, which according to some media is more significant as a viral phenomenon, was further heightened as its release coincided with the opening of the Party’s two annual parliamentary sessions (lianghui), during which environmental issues were to be officially addressed.
However, perhaps paradoxically, the Party took care to delete the film from online sites a week after its release. Why this seemingly delayed censorship? While speculative hypotheses are numerous, this kind of partial or preliminary concession may also suggest that the central government is determined to enforce its environmental policy by taking advantage of civil society’s ability to put pressure on local governments who may be too lackadaisical in imposing and reinforcing environmental laws.