China’s “Inconvenient Truth”? A Review of “Under the Dome”

Factory_in_ChinaChina has experienced rapid economic growth over the past decade, but, as a consequence of the expansion of industry and an unregulated dependence on “dirty” energy, many parts of the country have also experienced the negative effects of heavy pollution. While it may be no secret that air quality and other environmental metrics in China are unsatisfactory at best, the full scale of the problem has only recently been brought to the forefront of media attention through the documentary film Under the Dome.

Funded and produced by former CCTV reporter Chai Jing, the film was released online on Feb. 28 of this year. Since then, it has garnered more than 100 million views and started a dialog amongst the Chinese public regarding corruption and environmental degradation within the country. This topic proved too hot for the comfort of the authorities, who decided to remove it from all sites located behind China’s much-derided Internet firewall.

images4051TUJ9The movie, which combines footage of natural settings and cityscapes with interviews of members of the public and environmental statistics, is 143 minutes long and is available on YouTube as well as other platforms. Some of the startling numbers revealed by Chai include the fact that 88.4 percent of the rivers in Shanxi province are polluted, and that the number of particles in the air is often more than 10 times higher than international standards.

As Under the Dome makes clear, the problem is not a lack of environmental legislation. China has some stringent environmental protection laws on the books. Regulators, however, often lack the clout to enforce these guidelines especially against powerful state-controlled companies. Thus truckers are often able to get away with forgoing mandated emissions-lowering devices, and coal and oil producers are free to increase output at the expense of the natural surroundings.

beijing air pollutionAlthough the Chinese government has blocked access to the film, it may be impossible for them to put the genie back in the bottle. More than half a million Chinese users shared Under the Dome on social media site Weibo, and it became the most frequently searched term on the search engine Baidu. Whether through a sincere appreciation of the merits of the film or a fear of a possible public backlash against them, several highly placed officials have even praised Chai’s efforts. Asked about the issues raised in the film, Premier Li Keqiang stressed the government’s commitment to a cleaner environment, stating, “All illegal production and emissions will be brought to justice and held accountable.” The head of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Chen Jining, said that he was “grateful” to Chai and even compared her work to Rachel Carson’s magnum opus “Silent Spring,” which is widely credited with birthing the environmental movement in the United States.

China currently uses more coal than the rest of the world combined, which is one of the major factors contributing to its environmental pollution. Yet there is reason for hope going forward. China’s leaders have pledged to double their country’s use of renewable and nuclear energy by 2030. In 2013, China led the world with investments of $54.2 billion in renewable energy. With a population in excess of 1.3 billion, China can have a major impact within its borders as well as overseas by deploying and perfecting wind and solar tech.

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Some view these promises by the Chinese government with a great deal of skepticism because many countries announce goals that they fail to reach. After all, Canada has announced that it won’t meet its greenhouse gas emission targets for 2020 and the European Union is expected to fall short of its targets for 2050. That’s why films like Under the Dome are so important: By generating passion among millions of viewers, they can motivate individuals to effect change on their own without waiting for recalcitrant politicians and government edicts.

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Author: Kathleen Hallal

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