Updated: April 24, 2015 05:00 PM GMT
A woman wearing a face mask walks in heavy smog in Harbin, northeast China's Heilongjiang province (AFP Photo)
In a country where censorship remains strict and journalists regularly demand bribes from monolithic firms to keep silent about pollution, Chai Jing’s new film China Haze: Under the Dome feels like a welcome breath of fresh air.
By yesterday afternoon, a day after it was uploaded on websites including Youku — China’s equivalent of YouTube — the film registered more than 155 million views.
This morning it dominated the front pages of Chinese newspapers. Even state-run media is speculating that the newly appointed minister of environmental protection, Chen Jining, will face uncomfortable questions when the Communist Party starts its traditionally sedate National People’s Congress tomorrow. Pollution is set to be a major topic of discussion as delegates descend on Beijing from across the country.
After a generation of fierce economic growth at the expense of the environment, will the Chinese government finally be pushed to respond with bold action to tackle pollution?
Chai, a 39-year-old former anchor on state-run broadcaster CCTV, has left few Chinese in doubt that this is her aim.
“I have to stand up and do something, and I will do it right now, right here, in the very moment where I am,” she says near the end of the film, which runs one hour and forty-three minutes. “I am the change.”
Mixing scientific data, interviews with environmental officials and personal narrative, her landmark documentary links China’s notorious pollution to the suffering of Chai’s own baby who was born last year with a non-malignant tumor.
Although critics have argued that there is no causal link between pollution and the child’s illness, the film has nevertheless put the government under unprecedented pressure to fight pollution.
On Sunday, Under the Dome was the top trending item on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, with 270 million hits. Many users called for action even if few could suggest what should be done.
“If you do not have time to do more during severe haze at least you can do one thing: protect yourself and your loved ones,” wrote Sina Woman, a Weibo user. “We no longer wait in this haze war together!”
In the West, China’s government is primarily criticized for its poor rights record and lack of democracy. But among Chinese, the chief complaint concerning governance is often pollution. This is particularly true among parents in and around Beijing and in the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province, two of the biggest, most polluted regions of the country.
A survey at the start of last year found that 64 percent of China’s rich were either emigrating to another country or planning to, up from just four percent in a similar survey two years earlier. Pollution and food safety ranked the second most common reasons cited after financial security, or a fear the government will take peoples’ money away amid an ongoing crackdown on corruption.
In the capital, many kindergartens keep their students inside on days when there are high levels of PM2.5, the small particles that get deep inside the lungs and are linked to cancer. Offices, particularly at big multinationals, typically feature air filters that trap the worst of the pollution, and minimarts in big cities almost always sell facemasks.
Although PM2.5 levels dropped slightly in Beijing last year, the city’s 11 million people still endured 175 polluted days last year. In nearby Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei province where the bulk of the country’s steel factories are located, there were 264 polluted days in 2014. In all, 71 of 74 major Chinese cities failed to meet air quality standards last year, among them Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi, Chai’s home province.
As a recently a decade ago, people in Taiyuan would wake up on badly polluted mornings with black soot visible on their hands and faces, a stark reminder of pollutants bellowing out of the coal plants dotted around Shanxi.
Although the government has tried to overhaul ailing coal plants and transform the economy away from industry towards a greater reliance on the services sector, progress in a country of 1.36 billion people was never going to be rapid.
China has tried to lower its reliance on coal by importing natural gas from Central Asia and Russia in particular, but it is still the world’s biggest consumer of coal, which represents 70 percent of the energy supply. Last year, the total amount of coal burned in China fell for the first time this millennium amid an economic slowdown. However, most projections don’t expect coal use to peak in China until the next decade.
For the government, fighting widespread pollution across this vast country is one of its most difficult conundrums. With still no significant political reforms in sight as the Communist Party shows little sign of allowing its power to become diluted, economic progress represents its main source of legitimacy. Industries that pollute provide hundreds of millions of jobs, and people with jobs are generally less likely to rock the boat.
For China’s dictatorial rulers, there could be no worse time to risk undermining the economy. With house prices falling further last month, the central bank again lowering interest rates on Saturday and GDP growth expected to be the lowest in decades, China is facing its first economic stagnation since Deng Xiaoping embraced market reforms in the mid-1980s.
In short, the Communist Party is trapped in a tight spot. On the one hand, it has to do everything it can to keep the economy from sinking and thus keep people content. On the other, pollution is perhaps second only to making money on the list of concerns of ordinary Chinese; and there is little doubt pollution is fast becoming the number-one priority, especially among those who have already become wealthy.
No wonder then that the new environment minister felt compelled to praise Under the Dome during a press conference on Sunday, his first since taking the job.
“I think this work has an important role in promoting public awareness of environmental health issues so I’m particularly pleased by this event,” Chen told reporters.
At the start of the year, a new environmental protection law came into effect with unlimited fines for polluting factories. The problem is — as Chai’s film demonstrates — authorities too often ignore offenders due to corruption, fear, a lack of power, or simple economic realities.
For Chinese and indeed anyone hoping for progress on pollution and climate change, perhaps the scariest moment of Under the Dome comes when Chai asks an environmental protection officer why Beijing can’t simply close polluting steel plants.
“Are you joking? He responds in amazement. “A steel plant with a yearly capacity of 10 million tons usually employs 100,000 workers, there is no way you could close steel plants in Hebei province.”
Dan Long is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Beijing who has reported on the region for more than a decade.