Censors Take On China's Silent Spring Moment

Photo: Peter Fairley
Jinhua skyline in 2005.

Chinese censors took down a hugely popular documentary on China’s air pollution crisis this past weekend, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Under the Dome, a polished, 104-minute report by Chinese broadcast journalist Chai Jing [embedded below], had gone viral after its release last week, attracting several hundred million views in China before censors restricted domestic access to the video and squelched news coverage of it. 

The film is a damning account of China’s declining air quality, the sources of its pollution, and the toothlessness of environmental agencies charged with controlling it. It’s a wide-ranging production that tries to explain the price China has paid for its industrialization and wealth generation, as well as a passionate call to action.

For me, the film’s visceral portrayal of contemporary life amidst smog—and the movie’s historic sweep—sparked flashbacks to my own discomfort breathing in Chinese air during visits in 1991, 2005, and 2006. 

In 1991, my eyes burned as the aging cruise liner I’d taken over from Japan motored up the Huangpu River, past the petrochemical plants then lining the river’s eastern banks, on its way into Shanghai. But the historic city across the river was clean. Aside from a few buses, it was a city that still moved on pollution-free pedal power, its streets a flood of bicycles. And as I traveled inland for several weeks, the pollution faded further, revealing China’s natural beauty. 

When I flew into Shanghai 14 years later to report on China’s rising tide of electric bicycles for IEEE Spectrum, Shanghai itself seemed still cleaner than I’d recalled. While cars and trucks were on the rise, the East-bank industry had been cleared to make way for gleaming skyscrapers. 

But China was clearly changing. I visited smaller cities where smog nearly blocked out the sun. Among these was Jinhua, a city of about 1 million people in Zhejiang Province, where I visited an electric bike factory. E-bike shop owners there told me that the e-bike’s lack of tailpipes was already an attractive selling feature for Jinhua residents who feared the ill-effects of the air they breathed. 

Like a child who seems to grow six inches overnight, the situation seemed far worse when I found myself back in China just 18 months later to cover the nation’s exploding consumption of coal for Technology Review magazine. Shanghai’s air was foul, and I encountered far worse as I traveled north towards Beijing. On one unforgettable stop in the fast-growing city of Zaozhuang in Shandong Province, I found myself momentarily trying not to breathe.   

Under the Dome is a well-documented and artfully executed exposé of what was choking Shandong and Shanghai then and would get worse in the years that followed: poorly-regulated combustion of coal and low-grade petroleum. 

Chai Jing’s self-financed film mixes gotcha reporting, data, graphics, and interviews with scientists and government officials to illuminate China’s air pollution problem from every imaginable angle. She identifies what smog is (chemically-laced particles of soot) and where it comes from (60 percent from burning coal and oil). And she peels back the layers of factors—including economic imperatives, weak environmental enforcement, and corruption—hindering efforts to clean it up. 

Her constant companions throughout the film are officials from China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) who, time and again, appear helpless to enforce anti-pollution edicts from Beijing that have been on the books for over a decade. 

At a steel plant in Hebei Province, immediately south of Beijing, Chai and MEP inspectors witness smoke billowing around the mandated equipment that is supposed to be sucking it up and filtering out the soot. But MEP officials tell Chai, on camera, that they are powerless to enforce the law because they lack the political heft to make penalties stick. 

Xiong Yuehui, who runs the MEP’s Department of Science, Technology and Standards, explains that steel plants like the one she visited provide 100,000 jobs in Hebei and are therefore untouchable: 

“They act with utter recklessness. Their operations are completely unlicensed. The inspectors don’t even want to go or touch this industry in any way. It’s reached the point where no one can stop them.”

Off-camera another MEP officer confides that that he feels sometimes that he is “nothing more than a mascot.” 

The most chilling scene unfolds at a fueling station where inspectors ask for a sample of diesel fuel so they can analyze it for compliance with fuel quality standards. Rather than comply, the station owner brazenly takes the MEP inspector’s ID card, and rejects his power to conduct random inspections. “You have the obligation, but not the authority,” he tells the MEP officer. Chai shows that, thanks to vague wording of the nation’s anti-pollution laws, it appears the station owner may be right. 

The film closes with a call to action by “ordinary people.” Chai exhorts viewers to call the government’s environmental hotline, to photograph environmental abuses by polluters, and to otherwise demand change. “Even the world’s most powerful government can’t control pollution by itself,” says Chai. “It needs to rely on ordinary people like you and me—our choices and our determination.”

The film also sets China’s battle against pollution in the context of other global environmental battles. Rachel Carson, author of the epic anti-chemicals book “Silent Spring,” gets one of the last words, speaking knowledge to power about an impending “disaster” if chemical use is not controlled. 

Last week, China’s environmental protection minister, Chen Jining, compared Under the Dome to “Silent Spring,” according to the Guardian, a U.K. newspaper. Jining is quoted as saying that the film had, “an important role in promoting public awareness of environmental health issues.”

Some industrialists appear to agree; they have tried to undermine Chai’s credibility just as the chemical industry attacked Carson. Last week, Forbes covered online comments attributed to Wan Zhanxiang, an official at China National Petroleum Corporation, who wrote that Chai had no “insight” and posited that, “Maybe she doesn’t have enough brains.” 

For now, such commentary for and against the film and its maker is likely to die down within China—or at least go underground. According to the New York Times report, Chinese propaganda officials have ordered news organizations not to report on the film, and banned its distribution via video websites. A set of editorials for and against the documentary that was slated to run in the Global Times, a newspaper managed by the People’s Daily, was spiked.


Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the EnergyWise newsletter and get biweekly news on the power & energy industry, green technology, and conservation delivered directly to your inbox.