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Documentary shows the extent of pollution in China

Justin Jacobs reviews a documentary which - before it was pulled by the government - exposes the depth and severity of China's pollution problems

China saw a surprise blockbuster hit emerge this spring. A densely packed 104-minute anti-air pollution documentary called Under the Dome was watched on popular Chinese video sites (or at least clicked on) more than 200 million times in the first couple weeks of March before government censors started scrubbing it from the web.

Much of what is presented in the film, which was created and presented by Chai Jing, a well-respected former investigative reporter at state-run CCTV, is not necessarily news. Everyone in China knows too well the toxic soup of soot and chemicals that hangs over much of the country. And most know that coal, cars and heavy industry are to blame. Most also suspected, as the film exposes in devastating detail, that a dysfunctional bureaucracy and endemic corruption have played their role.

But the issues have never been presented as deftly, slickly, indignantly and comprehensively as Chai's Under the Dome. Chai weaves a compelling narrative out of her own personal history, detailed data on the sources of China's air pollution and its health threats and an investigation into the ways powerful state-owned enterprises (SOEs), including the country's oil majors, overwhelm environmental regulators to preserve their economic and political clout. She does so using an engaging presentation style reminiscent of Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth and countless TED talks.

Chai starts the film with the story of how her daughter was diagnosed with a benign tumor while still in the womb. The scare, she says, prompted her to think more deeply about the causes, consequences and possible solutions to the air pollution that surrounded her everyday.

Domestic critics of the film have latched on to this aspect of the film, arguing that it is an emotional ploy and Chai offers no proof that the tumor was caused by the pollution. And there is some merit to this complaint. Chai never directly makes the connection herself, but it is clearly implied without any proof of direct causation.

Still, it is a powerful framing device. The film has connected with audiences in a way that countless similar documentaries, articles and studies have not, mostly because it taps into a deep well of unease among an increasing number of Chinese people worried about what the smog is doing to their health - and to their children's.

The film's success seems to offer proof of a shift in consciousness among at least a segment of the population who no longer believe the growth-at-any cost economic model is right for China. When Chai moved to Beijing in the 1980s, she says, "smokestacks were seen as a sign of progress". As the capital pushes industry and coal power plants out of the city, those days are clearly coming to an end.

Among Chai's targets is the coal industry. Chai reminds her audience that China burns more coal than the rest of the world combined. But, she rightly points out, it is not just the amount of coal burned that is the problem, but how it is burned. The country relies heavily on domestically produced and heavily polluting lignite coal, a cheaper but dirtier fuel than other coal grades. Moreover, she says, whereas most parts of the developed world wash coal before it is burned, a process that adds a fraction to its cost but helps cut down on the pollutants it emits, Chinese producers rarely do so.

She also targets the steel and cement industries and shows plants that flout environmental regulations. The automobile industry is criticised for cutting costs by not installing equipment to reduce auto emissions and instead fostering a system of falsified environmental certifications. One regulator says that 90% of the certificates verifying that cars and trucks meet emission standards are fakes.   

The oil industry, and Sinopec in particular, comes in for heavy criticism for resisting government measures to boost the country's fuel standards, which would go a long way to cutting pollution, and deploying its monopoly power to maintain the status quo. She visits Los Angeles and Tokyo and shows how strict enforcement of higher fuel standards allowed those cities to reduce vehicle emissions even as the number of cars on the road has soared.

What sets Chai's film apart from most other Chinese-led investigations into the smog problem is the way it reveals the dynamics within the government that have allowed the country's pollution problem to worsen. What Chai lays out is nothing short of the Communist Party at war with itself over one of the most fundamental issues it faces - how to balance economic growth with environmental management. It is territory that most would have fear to tread, and it is likely one reason why government censors eventually decided to pull the film from the web.

Chai clearly worked closely with the Ministry for Environmental Protection and is sympathetic to their plight. Time and again she shows how the environmental regulators are marginalised and how industry is able to run roughshod over their regulators. The subcommittee that determines China's fuel standards, for instance, is made up mostly of Sinopec employees. Regulators that try to enforce environmental standards for steel plants, power station or automobiles are almost always rebuffed. It isn't that China doesn't have the necessary laws, Chai says, it is that powerful state-owned enterprises don't abide by them.

"You can't control them. Say you have an only child, and this child is learning bad behaviour, as his mother what can you do? All you can do is give him one good beating, but you can't beat him everyday; They don't pay us any mind," an anonymous official at the powerful National Development and Reform Commission says in the film. An official for the environmental ministry laments his powerlessness in enforcing regulations: "These days, I don't dare even open my mouth, for fear that people will see that I have no teeth."

The film has raised a number of questions. For one, how did it even get made? It is not overtly anti-government, but it touches on sensitive areas of policy and exposes party infighting. Yet, there was clearly support from at least some segments of the government, which provided data and access. It was even initially posted on a state media site. But how high up did that support go? It was released in the days before the Party's annual gathering in Beijing and received high praise from the new head of the environmental ministry. Was it a case of a rogue ministry trying to bolster its clout, or part of a broader strategy by Xi Jinping to rally support for a more robust environmental agenda and measures to cut powerful SOEs down to size? If so, why did the government eventually pull the plug? Was it the documentary's content? Was it the call to collective action that closes the film that made the government nervous? Or was it the film simply the victim of its own success? Only time will answer these questions, but it seems clear that China is entering a new era.

Click here to watch Under the Dome with English subtitles on YouTube.

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