When she was pregnant, former Chinese news anchor Chai Jing got some tragic news – her unborn daughter was diagnosed with a tumour. She immediately quit her job, and soon started working on a documentary focusing on China’s pollution problem (especially smog). Now, her self-financed documentary, for which she paid $200,000 took the country by storm, with 75 million hits on the day it was released on Chinese video streaming sites and over 250 million views now.
Telling the truth, but not the entire truth, misrepresenting and hiding away inconvenient truths – those are all tactics commonly employed by the Chinese authorities in censorship – especially when it comes to the country’s pollution, which has been a by-product of the massive economic growth. State-run newspapers and TV shows give the impression that everything is under control, the situation is stable and there is nothing to worry about. Needless to say, they don’t show images with villages (or even cities) that almost never get to see a clear sky, or with countless people suffering from chronic lung diseases. Under the Dome was a much needed step in the right direction, showing what may be a well known fact to many people in the world, but is still an unknown for the Chinese population.
The documentary gets very upclose and personal with the people harmed by pollution. Ms Chai interviews a six-year-old living in the coal-mining province of Shanxi, one of the most polluted places on Earth.
“Have you ever seen stars?” Ms Chai asks. “No,” replies the girl.
“Have you ever seen a blue sky?” “I have seen a sky that’s a little bit blue,” the girl tells her.
“But have you ever seen white clouds?” “No,” the girl sighs.
Watch the documentary here (only a part of it is subtitled):
Under the Dome also shines where it was most needed – it is very critical of the state’s lax environmental laws. Basically, despite running illegal activities, industrial companies are rarely fined or properly taxed for their emissions. Despite argueing that greening the economy will provide a more prosperous and sustainable development for the country, with more jobs and less pollution. But she is given a blunt response:
“It just doesn’t work to sacrifice employment for the environment,” Ms Chai is told.
The documentary also explains what smog is, how it forms, and how it harms us. Sixty per cent of China’s air pollution comes from burning coal and oil, and in 2013, China burned more coal than the entire world combined!
The original documentary was four hours long but another collaborator, tech entrepreneur Luo Yonghao, advised that the length should be around 100 minutes, which it did in the end. She also had to obtain approval from the Chinese government to publish the documentary, and some of the cuts were actually based on what the government “advised”.
Ms Chai and her collaborators declined interview requests from the BBC, and from what I could tell, all non-Chinese media; they are wary of outside media, and perhaps it’s well that they are. The entire team is now in a very special and delicate position – they have a moral high ground and can speak against the publicly against government policy; even if she must first gain their tacit approval, this is a huge victory. Under the Dome is a huge victory. It sparked a huge national debate and put the problems right on the table, for everyone to see and discuss. The timing couldn’t have been more interesting: the Communist Party-led congress is starting this week, with the main topics being naming a new environment minister and finding anti-corruption measures.