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Online Smog Film Watched by Tens of Millions in China

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Xin Lin  |  Radio Free Asia [caption id="attachment_2761" align="alignleft" width="300"]Chai addresses her audience with a picture from the smog-filled Northeastern city of Harbin in the background. (from the TV show ‘China's Haze: Under the Doom') Chai addresses her audience with a picture from the smog-filled Northeastern city of Harbin in the background. (from the TV show ‘China’s Haze: Under the Doom’)[/caption] A documentary film by a former government broadcaster highlighting China’s “airpocalypse” smog problem has gone viral on the country’s tightly controlled Internet, clocking tens of millions of views in the first two days of its release. Former China Central Television (CCTV) anchor Chai Jing released the self-funded film, titled “Under the Dome,” online on Saturday in the style of a public lecturer addressing a live audience. Chai said she was driven to make the 104-minute feature-length documentary after her baby daughter was born with a lung disease. “This wasn’t a planned project,” Chai told the People’s Daily Online in an interview. “My baby was sick, and after I resigned I planned to spend some time taking care of her.” “During that time, I realized that the smog problem was getting worse and worse, to the extent that everything in life was influenced by it,” Chai said. “My professional training, as well as my role as a mother, meant that I thought I should be able to answer the questions of what smog is, where does it come from, and what should we do about it,” she said. “That’s why I carried out this investigation.” An acceptable price? Chai’s film draws on news photos and footage, scientific research, and interviews with researchers and officials to highlight the causes of smog, in particular laying the blame on the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. The film, which refers to the Chinese slang-word “dome” to refer to air pollution over major cities, ends with a call to action, especially on the part of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Co-released by the Chinese video-sharing site Youku and party mouthpiece the People’s Daily Online, the film is likely to spark further debate over the huge social and economic costs of environmental pollution as the country’s parliament begins its annual session in Beijing. However, sources told the U.S.-based China Digital Times that propaganda officials are already directing websites and media outlets to carefully monitor and control all public discussion of the film. Many comments were highly critical of the government for allowing huge swathes of smog, containing emissions and particulate matter many times over legal limits, to regularly engulf northern and eastern China. U.S.-based author and economist He Qinglian said via Twitter: “This film brings home in a very direct way the bloodstained vested interests linking officials, mine bosses, and all coal consumers, right down to forced child laborers at the lowest rung of society.” Pro-government commentators weighed in on the debate, saying Chai’s film was deliberately trying to incite popular feeling on the topic, while others said pollution is an acceptable price to pay for high economic growth. “They want the economy to grow by more than seven percent, but they don’t want there to be smog,” one commenter wrote. “That’s like saying you want your horse to go fast, but you don’t want it to eat grass.” Shift in public awareness Environmentalist Liu Changhua said the film shows that a widespread change in people’s awareness of environmental issues is taking place. “This film represents a huge advance in common knowledge and awareness,” Liu said. “She’s not an expert on smog; she just collects ideas from experts and figures from her own personal viewpoint.” Liu said he didn’t agree with all of the science in the film. “But overall, this will have a huge effect on promoting awareness and spurring action among the general public,” he said. But he said there is still “a lot to be done” on the part of officials. “Whether or not they actually do it, will depend on oversight by even more people,” he said. Journalist Zhu Xinxin, a member of the writers’ group Independent Chinese PEN, said Chai’s film has walked a fine line between exposing the truth and criticizing the government. “She had a lot of difficulty dealing with some very negative content while at the same time using officially approved language,” Zhu said. But he said the key was to make the film available to a Chinese audience. “She was always going to have to make some compromises if she wanted the public inside of China to see it,” he said. System-wide change needed He said the key to the issue lies in systemic change in China. “Individual citizens acting alone won’t be able to solve this problem at a system-wide level,” he said. “The only thing that will work is detailed, hard work at the level of government departments,” Zhu said. A website owner based in Beijing who asked to remain anonymous said the film’s value lies in Chai’s bid to uncover the causes of the smog problem. “At the very end, she says the cause of the smog is the [government] monopoly over natural resources, and the lack of rule of law,” he said. “If she’d taken it a step further, she would have struck at the heart of the problem, which is in the system itself … All of China’s problems have a single source:  this dictatorial system of government that we have.” “It doesn’t matter what the Chinese Communist Party tries to do to reform the situation. At the end of the day it’s trapped by huge vested interest groups,” he said. Worsening levels of air and water pollution, as well as disputes over the effects of heavy metals from mining and industry, have forced ordinary Chinese to become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protest, according to a 2013 report from the Friends of Nature group. Many have been prompted into action by China’s environmental crisis, sparking a rise in “mass incidents” linked to pollution, while environmental groups have raised growing concerns over the falsification of pollution testing and environmental impact assessments. Campaigners say that China has an exemplary set of environmental protection legislation, but that close ties between industry and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level. Copyright © 1998-2014, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036]]>

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