China Bans Chai Jing’s Antipollution Documentary about Smog in China
Ten years ago, I asked what that smell in the air was,
and I got no answer. Now I know. It’s the smell of money.
- Chai Jing, journalist and documentary filmmaker
The Chinese documentary film “Under the Dome” was released online on Saturday, February 28, 2015, just before China’s annual “two meetings” period – the meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in the following week.
The film highlights the severe pollution problem in China.
Major internet platforms such as Youku Tudou and Tencent aired it without interference from film censors. On Tencent alone, it racked up more than 170 million views and sparked a huge amount of debates online.
Chen Jining, China’s environmental protection minister, praised the documentary as “worthy of admiration” and told reporters it should “encourage efforts by people to improve air quality”.
People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, re-posted the film and published an interview with Chai Jing.
Debates on environmental issues dominated the current session of the National People’s Congress, in Beijing. According to some correspondents, the popularity of the impassioned, independent film about environmental pollution appears to have brought jitters to the communist authorities.
Early this month the Chinese authorities banned the popular documentary just two days after Premier Li Keqiang called pollution a blight on people’s lives and had promised to fight it with all the government’s might. It was no longer aired on Youku Tudou, and Tencent from Friday March 6, 2015. The authorities instructed the media to stop writing about the documentary.
Chai Jing is a former investigative reporter and a celebrity TV anchor at the state broadcaster China Central Television. She has a good following among university students with a high-level of social consciousness.
Last year, she quit her job to look after her baby daughter born with a benign lung tumor.
For almost a year, Chai Jing conducted critical investigations of China’s massive air pollution problem. She used $160,000 of her own money and one year to produce the 104-minute documentary “Under the Dome”, a wake-up call for China.
Chai Jing confesses that, like many other Chinese citizens, it was only recently that she learned the difference between fog and smog. Here is a transcript of the introduction by her:
“This graph shows that the Beijing PM2.5 index during January 2013. In just one month, there were 25 days of smog.
I was in Beijing at that time and as I looked back on this curve over the course of that year, I tried to recall the senses and emotions. But I couldn’t. At that time, everyone said random weather patterns caused the haze. Hardly anyone took it seriously.
In that month, I made four business trips: to Shaanxi, Henan, Jiangxi and Zhejiang. Looking back at the sky of these trips, it seems like China at that time was immersed in smog blanketing 25 provinces and 600 million people. I was right in the middle of it, but I didn’t even realize it. But the sensation in my throat remained. When I was in Xian, I was coughing so badly that I couldn’t even sleep. I cut up a lemon and put it beside my pillow.
When I returned to Beijing, I discovered that I was pregnant … At that moment, I knew she must be a girl … When I heard her [baby’s] heartbeat for the first time, there was nothing I wanted more than for her to be healthy. But she was diagnosed with a benign tumor which would require surgery immediately after birth… Before I could even hold her, she was carried off to the operating room … When I saw my little angel after the surgery, she was still unconscious. The Doctor said,… When I saw my little angel after the surgery, she was still unconscious. The Doctor said,… At that moment, I knew she must be a girl … When I heard her [baby’s] heartbeat for the first time, there was nothing I wanted more than for her to be healthy. But she was diagnosed with a benign tumor which would require surgery immediately after birth… … When I saw my little angel after the surgery, she was still unconscious. The Doctor said,
“The operation was very successful. But there is one thing you have to forgive me for: She is so chubby that it took several attempts to find a vein for the anesthetic.”
I took her tiny hand full of needle marks, and I held it to my face. I called her name until she opened her eyes and looked at me.
I’m a very lucky person. After that, I quit my job so I could spend my time keeping her company and looking after her. As long as we are all together, safe and sound, nothing else matters.
But already on our way home from the hospital, I started to feel scared. The smell of the black smoke and burning fire was everywhere. I covered her nose with my handkerchief. I know how stupid that seems, since in her struggle to breathe through it, she would just breath in more smog.
Before that moment, I’d never been afraid of air pollution and I’d never worn a filter mask. But now, there is a little life in your arms, her breathing, eating and drinking are all on your shoulders. That’s when you begin to feel afraid.
That severe smog at the end of 2013 lasted about tw months. The continuing smog made me feel like it was more than just a random occurrence and that it couldn’t possibly be over quickly. It was the same sky that I saw ten years ago, when I was in Shanxi.”
In 2004, Chai Jing interviewed a six-year-old girl named Wang Huiqing.
Chai: “Have you ever seen a real star before?”
Wang Huiqing: “No, I haven’t.”
Chai: “What about blue sky?”
Wang Huiqing: “I’ve seen one that’s a little blue.”
Chai: “What about white clouds?”
Wang Huiqing: “No, I haven’t.”
Chai then says: “When I interviewed this six-year-old girl in 2004, it didn’t cross my mind at all that what she said could be the same experience my daughter would have.”
Later on in her presentation Chai describes how difficult it was to explain to her daughter why she shouldn’t go outdoors. She says:
“These photos show each day of 2014 in Beijing. Only when the air quality was good would I dare to take my daughter outside with me. But how many good days were there? 175 were polluted. That means that in one year, half of the time I had no choice but to keep her at home like a prisoner.
Sometimes, when I get up in the morning, I see my daughter standing in front of our balcony smacking the glass window. This is her method of telling me that she wants to go outside.
I think, one day, she will ask me ‘Mama, why do you keep me shut inside? What is really out there? Will anything hurt me?’
Everything I have done throughout this year is to answer the questions she will ask me in the future. What is smog? Where does it come from? What can we do about it? ‘
Rivers in Shanxi: 84% are polluted, 62% are no longer usable. Chai speaks to an official named Wang.
Chai: “Sir, do you think this is still a river?”
Wang: “It’s not river water, it’s wastewater. Tests show that the annual average Benzopyrene is a powerful carcinogen. As time goes on, it accumulates in one’s body. Once enough of it accumulates, it increases a person’s risk of getting cancer.”
Chai Jing mentions the number of polluted days in some cities in China in 2014: Tianjin – 197, Shenyang – 152, Chengdu – 125, Lanzhou – 112, and Shijiazhuang – 264.
Chai Jing interviews local officials who protect industries that create jobs and pay taxes, but pollute the environment. She poses some tough questions about the politics and economics behind the smog. In one scene she confronts an official about fake emission stickers.
Chai: “So after so many years your law enforcement powers are still completely toothless?”
Officer: “Nowadays I don’t dare open my mouth out of fear that people will see I have no teeth.”
Some scenes in the film are shocking. In one scene during a visit to a hospital operating room, viewers are shown the damage China’s polluted air can do to a person’s lungs.
Chai Jing’s documentary focuses more on pollution and its effects on the daily lives of millions of Chinese. She doesn’t explicitly criticize China’s model of economic development. She does not assign any blame or call for China’s leaders or the party to be held accountable for their policies. However, she explains that the environmental pollution is due to the rapid industrialization. She blames the fast-growth development policies of the past which are linked to corruption for creating environmental side-effects.
Chai Jing’s documentary could be summarized by her words:
“I once watched a TV series titled ‘Under the Dome‘. It was about a small town suddenly enclosed by a dome that appeared out of nowhere. Cut off from the world, no way out. But one day, I realized that we’re all living in the same reality.”
- The Anti-Pollution Documentary That’s Taken China By Storm (npr.org)
- Under the Dome (film) (en.wikipedia.org)
- China takes Under the Dome anti-pollution film offline (bbc.com)
- China pulls smog documentary offline after internet storm (ft.com)
- The Five Days of December 1952 When the Killer Smog Blanketed London. (tvaraj.com)
- Mr. Yo: “The Boss of Cleaning” (tvaraj.com