What “Under the Dome” tells us about where China stands on air pollution

ChaiJing

Three days ago something very unusual happened on the internet in this country. Almost overnight, hundreds of millions of smart phone screens here were occupied by just one person and one thing: Chai Jing’s nearly-2-hour documentary on air pollution, called “Under the Dome.”

Who’s Chai Jing? She is a former reporter of CCTV’s prime-time news program “News Investigation,” which is sort of China’s 60 Minutes. So roughly speaking she can also be considered China’s Katie Couric, only more famous. A while ago she quit her enviable job and gave birth to a daughter. After being away from the spotlight for over a year, she came back with this documentary that adopts the format of a long TED talk, or (if you still remember) Al Gore’s award-winning documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. What she did was standing in front of a studio audience, narrated a fascinating personal story about trying to figure out the smog problem for the sake of her little child who was born with a benign tumor, with the help of state-of-the-art visual aid technologies. To answer three basic questions (What is smog? Where does it come from? What shall we do about it?), she interviewed dozens of top experts and officials in China, visited LA and London to learn from their experience, and consulted tons of scientific literature, all in the capacity of an individual citizen. She claimed that she spent 1 million Chinese yuan (about 160,000 USD) out of her own pocket to make this documentary. And the Chinese public responded to her initiative with absolute enthusiasm: One estimate puts it at more than 175 million clicks within merely 48 hours, a jaw-dropping performance for a serious, lengthy piece of hardcore journalism.

No compliment would be too flattering for such a tremendous public service that Chai Jing has done. And the viewership of her documentary probably has already surpassed that of An Inconvenient Truth, which won Al Gore an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize. And just like An Inconvenient Truth, Under the Dome has a very clear intention of influencing public opinion on an issue that is so crucial to this country now. So appreciation and admiration aside, a critical question arises: what kind of impact does the documentary has on Chinese public opinion about air pollution? What does it tell us about where the country stands on this issue?

What we should all be painfully aware of is the tragic irony that Al Gore’s award-winning documentary, no matter how “critically acclaimed” it was, seemed to have ZERO impact on widespread public opinion about climate change. What’s worse, some claim that “(its impact on) public opinion was to increase public skepticism about climate science and polarize public support for both climate and clean energy action,” largely due to Gore’s messaging of “sacrifice” which made him a partisan target (and climate change a collateral damage). This should be a dire warning to anyone who believes that you can sway public opinion just by presenting “solid facts.” It’s the frame, stupid!

Apparently Chai Jing entered the venture with an assumption that there had already been a strong consensus within the Chinese society about tackling air pollution, all she needs to do is to build on this consensus and give the country a little nudge towards action:

“Easily put, everybody wants to breathe clean air. No consensus is stronger in this society than this one. That’s the source of my confidence,” she told People’s Daily’s official website which arranged an exclusive interview with her PRIOR to the release of her documentary.

Even though it is probably too early to make a conclusive analysis of its impact, so far the public response to the documentary shows that the consensus is there, but with certain tensions that may threaten to tear it apart.

What becomes immediately very clear after the release of the show is the official backing it enjoys. And that constitutes a major component of Chai’s “consensus.” The fact that People’s Daily’s official website was one of the first on-line channels to distribute the documentary speaks to the unprecedented level of official support. Other social media channels run by the People’s Daily, such as Xiake Island (a WeChat account), also did not hold back their endorsement, proclaiming that the country’s decision makers should “get used to” this mode of agenda setting. The Global Times’ official Weibo account even criticized those who questioned Chai’s motives as “not genuinely patriotic.” Official endorsement of the documentary was so strong that some observers started to wonder about the true intention underneath. One of them ruminates openly about whether it is the top leadership’s strategy to claim an alternative source of legitimacy by attributing the slowing economy to a noble “war against pollution.”

If the authority’s support was unprecedented, the general public’s reaction was by no means surprising. Chai Jing is a household name in this country and the personal touch of her documentary only makes it more powerful and appealing. A browse of comments under her documentary on Tencent shows overwhelmingly positive reaction to her effort. Many commentators were deeply touched by her account of a personal journey from an indifferent citizen to a deeply concerned mother. A widely read post on Zhihu.com expressed another mother’s strong determination to follow Chai’s lead in taking personal actions to protect her own child. The CEO of one of China’s largest portal websites, Sohu.com, immediately heeded Chai’s call to refrain from driving cars for short-distance errands. And such a sense of agency is a refreshingly new element that she introduced to the public mentality.

Strong official endorsement plus wide public support, this is what assures us that an anti-smog consensus is still “sound”. But is it sound enough to carry tough, unpopular, drastic measures? The documentary actually helps us to run a “stress test” of this precious consensus and disturbing cracks did emerge.

If accusations of hypocrisy (that Chai Jing is a smoker) can be readily dismissed as cheap excuses to continue doing nothing about pollution, there are challenges which should be taken more seriously. Some reactions to the documentary suggest that air pollution may get caught in the entrenched fight between the “liberals (Chinese right)” and “conservatives (Chinese left)” in China’s net space due to Chai’s long time (perceived) affiliation with the former. This may have the effect of alienating or even agitating a still powerful faction in online opinion. For example, the Left’s major criticism of Chai is her advocacy of loosening up the monopoly of state-owned energy companies and allowing more competition so that cleaner energy sources could gain more ground. This triggered guarded reactions from those conservative Leftists who emphasize China’s energy security and state control. A more extreme reaction that got many nods today branded Chai Jing as an agent of a “sinister Green agenda” that intended to undermine China’s industrial strength. This illustrates the real possibility (albeit small at this moment) of an opposition to the entire environmental agenda based on ideology, which is different from the kind of interest-driven opposition from industries that might be affected (see the oil industry’s reaction to the documentary). In a country without partisan politics, how far an ideology-based, sweepingly anti-environmental opposition can go is something interesting to watch.

Class is another potent element that has the potential to rift the existing consensus. Some criticizes the documentary for “completely representing the perspective of an urban middle class,” for them “smog is an enemy that has nothing positive associated with it. But if you interview a steel worker, he may say ‘I would rather have this smog than losing my job.’” None of these oppositions at this moment shakes the consensus that air pollution is a problem. However, they might have a larger impact on how the society chooses to tackle it. Actually a debate is already happening around whether Chai’s documentary prescribes the right medicine to China’s smog problem, with coal industry representatives arguing that existing measures, if fully implemented, are sufficient to render the air breathable, and environmentalists arguing that Chai did not go far enough in advocating for renewables.

When Al Gore made An Inconvenient Truth, his biggest challenge was to overcome that self-denial which was paralyzing climate politics in the United States. Chai Jing faced a completely different public opinion landscape. And her challenge (and responsibility) is how to steer that consensus, which is at the same time strong and vulnerable.

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