In three weeks, it has gone from Internet sensation, to being blocked by government censors, to being the subject of a question to Premier Li Keqiang at a press conference on Sunday where Li vowed that the government would do more to combat pollution.
The film has done this not so much by breaking news so much as bringing it all together. Chai combines personal heart-tugging narrative, investigative reporting and explanatory skills to dissect the reasons for the dire air pollution that plagues Chinese cities.
She starts off talking about her new-born daughter, whom she keeps inside “like a prisoner” on extremely bad air days – nearly half of the days in 2014. Chai shows an interview she conducted in 2004 with a six-year old girl. “Have you ever seen a real star?” Chai asks. “No,” says the child. “What about blue sky?” Chai asks. “I’ve seen one that’s a little blue,” the child replies. “What about white clouds?” Chai asks. “No, I haven’t,” the child replies.
Chai has a gentle manner, but her documentary goes on to take a tough and sophisticated look at self-interested state-owned coal and oil companies, impotent environmental regulators, and ineffective national legislation. She travels with environmental inspectors who stop trucks at night, visit steel plants, and raid retailers of dirty motor fuel. She consults scientists and explains why small particles emitted by the nation’s booming number of automobiles are particularly lethal.
The film has a drumbeat of statistics, like a funeral march. The level of small particles routinely runs more than ten times international standards. Of the rivers in Shanxi,88.4 percent polluted, 62 percent no longer usable. In one river, the level of toxic benzopyrene has reached 290 times the regulatory limit. The number of times a long-standing environmental regulation has been enforced: zero.
In the end, Chai does something few Chinese ever do publicly: She calls for action, urging her fellow citizens to “stand up,” report violations of environmental laws and demand change. And here is where she probably crossed one of Chinese Communist Party’s red lines, embracing an action generated from below rather than orchestrated from above.
“It’s tens of million of ordinary people,” she says in the film. “One day they say ‘no.’ I’m not satisfied. I don’t want to wait. I’m not going to shirk the responsibility. I’m going to stand up and do something. I’m going to do it right now. At this moment. At this place.”
Some have compared her film to Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book on pesticides that led to a ban on DDT and—along with the Santa Barbara oil spill off California and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969—helped spur the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Others compare Chai’s work to Al Gore’s film “Inconvenient Truth,” his wake-up call about climate change.
“’Silent Spring’ was a low-tech version of what the film did,” said Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center. “It made the problem very personal and also understandable. I was struck with how it was so much from the heart. She really gave voice to a lot of unspoken fears people have in China. You can’t look out at a wall of gray without being scared.”
While “Under the Dome” called for action, the action the Chinese government took wasn’t what Chai had in mind. After the initial surge in viewers for the documentary, the government blocked access to the online video.
“The censorship is unfortunate since it will prevent an active discussion taking place in mainland China around the film,” said Joanna Lewis, a professor of science, technology and international affairs at Georgetown University. “China is not without stringent environmental regulations. But without added public pressure, the enforcement of such policies is likely to remain a low priority for many officials.”
Lewis added, however, that “it is difficult to imagine the government creating a space for the public to mobilize around environmental protection out of concern that such mobilization could spill over into other issues and create broader social instability.”
On Sunday, at the closing press conference of the National People’s Congress, a reporter from the Huffington Post asked Chinese Premier Li Keqiang what the government was going to do about some of the accusations in the film. Rather than attack the film, he replied:
I want to tell you that the Chinese government is determined to tackle environmental pollution, and tremendous efforts have been made in this regard. The progress we have made still fall far short of expectation of our people. Last year I said that the Chinese government would declare a war against environmental pollution. We are determined to carry forward our efforts until we achieve our goal.
We must get the focus of our efforts right. This year our focus will be to ensure the full implementation of the newly revised environmental protection law. All illegal production and emissions will be brought to justice and held accountable. We need to make the cost for pollution too high to bear. More support, including capacity building, needs to be given to these environmental law enforcement departments.
The Chinese government finds itself in a delicate spot. After all, as Li notes, the government has been taking some bold steps to try to get air pollution—and greenhouse gas emissions—under control. It is experimenting with cap and trade systems in several cities. It is spending billions to promote wind and solar power. And in an important breakthrough at a meeting with President Obama, China’s leader Xi Jinping pledged to put a cap on its carbon emissions by 2030.
Yet whereas the United States—under President Nixon—reacted to growing outrage about environmental hazards by creating a new agency and new regulations, the Chinese government already has environmental agencies and regulation. In China, the problem isn’t an absence of regulatory structure, it’s the wholesale failure of that structure, in which Chinese industry, much of it state-owned, disregards regulations, sets its own standards, or manages to play off different parts of the bureaucracy against one another.
In “Under the Dome,” heavy truck makers don’t install pollution control devices and use phony compliance stickers instead. Self-regulating oil refiners produce diesel with high sulfur content. Steel manufacturers lack pollution controls while many coal-fired power plants turn off scrubbers that reduce soot and acid rain because the scrubbers use a little bit of power that could otherwise be sold.
Chai shows all this in a most personal and tangible way. She goes with inspectors from the ministry of environmental protection to take samples of diesel fuel being sold along with lottery tickets in a small village. The owner says he has never heard of the bureau and the diesel quality is none of their business. When told by an inspector that the agency has the obligation to take samples, he says “you have the obligation but not the authority.”
At one point she asks a regulator who failed to close down a steel mill whether he is toothless. The regulator responds that he’s afraid to open his mouth because people will see he has no teeth.
There are so many startling aspects to “Under the Dome”: The fact that someone, especially a media-savvy former state television personality, would think of doing it; the use of the Internet to spread information very quickly; the way in which middle class Chinese, once obsessed purely with economic gains, are outraged about the quality of life; the way some well-intentioned government reforms open a Pandora’s Box of previous neglect; and the suggestion that people are angry enough to step forward.
“Despite the censorship of ‘Under the Dome,’ there are still reasons to be hopeful about the future of China’s environment,” said Georgetown’s Lewis. “China has become far more confident on the international stage in its environmental diplomacy, and this will hopefully lead to increased confidence in allowing for difficult conversations about the tradeoff between environmental protection and economic growth at home.”