Under the Dome: Is this China’s version of Silent Spring?

Chai Jing’s film about air pollution could have a long lasting impact, despite government efforts to block its release

Chinese journalist Chai Jing narrated the documentary (Pic: Screengrab/UTD)

Chinese journalist Chai Jing narrated the documentary (Pic: Screengrab/UTD)

By CK Yong in Beijing

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road-the one ‘less travelled by’-offer our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assure the preservation of our earth.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962

The Chinese government has removed an investigative documentary on China’s infamous smog released two weeks ago, which swept across the internet and was clicked by more than 175 million online viewers.

The 103-minute documentary Under the Dome employs simple words to deliver a strong voice to awaken Chinese people who are consciously or unconsciously immersed in the gains of their economic success.

And it is likely to trigger a new wave of public debate on air pollution once again.

Smog is not a new problem in China.

The public has already been familiar with the technical word PM2.5 since 2011 when another debate on the toxic air initiated by public figures on Chinese social media Weibo.

In the past four years, thousands of news articles on air pollution were published and various NGO campaigns highlighted the effects of pollution, after which the government finally announced its war on polluted air in 2014.

Social reflection?

However, the majority of the Chinese people just complain about air quality occasionally, and numbly get on with the reality.

On a heavily polluted day in Beijing or any other big cities in China, it would not be a surprise if the only people to wear masks are a few foreigners.

It seems that majority of people simply accept it.

But why are a lot of Chinese blind to a severe problem that haunts their everyday life?

In all likelihood, the public have not had the time or the inclination to reflect deeply on the causes of the smog.

So can this new documentary become China’s ‘Silent Spring’ and spark a moment of widespread social reflection?

The answer is still not clear.

At very beginning, some people said this film was a mirror in which everyone sees himself or herself.

While it was online, the “dome effect” sparked a wide range of public discussion from environmental protection to energy reform, then to science communication even towards humanity.

But the environment issue has fundamentally been shifted from the periphery to the core in China’s public discourse.

New Chinese environment minister Chen Jining, who praised the documentary, said that it reflects “growing public concern over environmental protection and threats to human health.”

But the documentary has been ignored by lawmakers at the annual Nationail People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

And this weekend it was taken down on Chinese websites.

Economic turning point?

But in spite of this move by the government, the documentary has offered an perspective for ordinary Chinese on the environmental cost of economic boom in China.

As an emerging power that is now home to many of the world’s most-polluted cities, the Chinese government has to face the environmental challenges at this critical moment.

During the two sessions taking place, China’s Premier Li Keqiang announced that the world’s second-largest economy would target growth this year of around 7%, slowing the pace of economic expansion.

At this economic turning point, it might be a good chance to restructure the economy in a more sustainable way.

It is more important than ever to engage every single Chinese resident in the invisible war because each person is a unit that makes smog.

But the question is will society grasp the momentum to accelerate the pace of collective environmental governance?

Or it will this film and its message simply be forgotten again?

CK Yong is a Beijing-based environmental journalist

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