Immune: in the name of rationality


In the middle of a massive eruption of public anger over compromised vaccines, a small group of influential individuals considered themselves immune to what they saw as cheap sentimentalities, and set out to restore “rationality” in the Chinese cyberspace. Their intervention created a deep cleavage in the public debate over the scandal, a consequence that considerably complicates the unfolding of events.

The origin of the story is the Mar 18 revelation by the Paper that 2 million pieces of compromised vaccines (due to improper storage under high temperatures) had entered the market through shady traders all over the country. Two suspects, Pang and her daughter, were caught illegally obtaining and selling Class II vaccines (those that are for voluntary use, as opposed to Class I vaccines that are mandatory for children, whose distribution is controlled by the state). While regulations mandate that vaccines should be kept in a controlled temperature between 2-8 Celsius degrees, the Pangs stored them in a make-shift warehouse with no air conditioning at all. As more details were dug out by the media, the uneasiness among the public, especially young parents, quickly approached boiling point.

As soon as signs of a major public outcry started to appear, a counter-move also began to collect momentum. The Paper’s report immediately met with criticism of “scaremongering”. Ironically, the source of the criticism was a WeChat account targeting young mothers. Declaring that there is little to fear, its main argument is that the vaccine scandal is “old news” (the suspects were actually arrested one year earlier but the police department chose to disclose it to the media now), and there is no reason to believe that the compromised products are still available on the market.

The argument is shaky, as a rebuttal from a veteran Paper journalist points out. Rather than using a piece of old news as click-bait, the fact that the Paper makes a new story out of an arrest a year earlier is a troubling indication of the police’s inability to make progress on the case for over a year and need to overcome interagency barriers by soliciting external support from the press (it was the police that fed the lead to the Paper).

What’s interesting is the man behind that WeChat account. Mai Tian, an Internet executive who made his name in 2012 by venturing the sensational allegation that Han Han, the famous Chinese writer and a sweetheart of the liberal middle class, had hired shadow writers to pen his best known stories, now runs a mobile site focusing on childcare. He is among a vocal group of individuals who have become increasingly vigilant against what they consider misguided populist sentiments. Within this highly heterogeneous group, you find Internet personalities such as him, “science disseminators”, journalists and leftist patriots. Despite their diverse political leaning and professional background, they seem to share one common denominator: a general distrust of popular judgment, bordering on condescension and a contrarian stubbornness.

While this kind of intellectual orientation is not entirely unusual in any society, in China it bumps into a big dilemma: what if that “populist sentiment” is the main driver of progressive change in a country besieged by all kinds of social ills?

An inconvenient truth in recent years is that more often than not, “irrational” concerns from the public outperform “scientific” assurance in terms of their prediction power. A few years after the Xiamen residents were scolded by “science disseminators” for their persistent and “irrational” protest against a planned PX chemical plant in 2007 (as PX is not particularly toxic), a massive explosion at the very facility that was supposed to be built in Xiamen and was relocated to a nearby town due to the protest vindicates the Xiamen protesters in a big way.

The vaccine scandal pitches the two forces against each other once more, this time in the shadow of a media report that is already three years old. On Mar 21, a post named “the tragedy of vaccines” got viral on people’s WeChat walls. In 2013, then Southern Metropolis News journalist Guo Xianzhong completed a three-year investigation into the horrendous side effects of vaccines and the suffering of families all over China. He managed to put a face (or to be accurate, 38 faces) to a problem that was obscured by the country’s general improvement in public health and prevention of contagious diseases. With his camera, he documented 38 kids who suffered severe, debilitating side effects after vaccination and posed serious questions about how the country had been mishandling the recognition and compensation of vaccination victims.

The heartbreaking photos of children are apt ingredients for a new scandal unfolding in front the public’s eyes. The victim of the new scandal is temporarily invisible, as the authority’s investigation has not been thorough enough to uncover those affected by the poorly stored vaccines. When the public is in need of a vehicle to carry their frustration and anger, they pick the most emotionally potent at hand, despite the substantive discrepancy between Guo’s report and the current situation. Side effects happen to proper vaccines too. It is a matter of chance, and when it occurs what’s crucial is expedited recognition and care for those families affected. Compromised vaccines generally pose a different kind of risk, the risk of failure (zero effect), which could be life threatening for those who have to count on their effectiveness, such as potential rabies victims. Angry parents ignored the nuanced differences and aired their discontent using images of crippled or paralyzed kids from three years ago.

The mismatch deeply troubled Hecaitou, a veteran Internet commentator, who penned a sarcastic blogpost insinuating that those retweeting the side-effect story were illiterate and stupid. He maintained that the current scandal concerned only Class II vaccines, and there’s no evidence that these compromised vaccines would be highly toxic. He was particularly harsh on the great number of online media outlets that kept feeding the public with that 2013 story. “Manipulating an ignorant public is like channeling a mindless flash flood. Whoever use it to earn clicks or build up influence is shameless.”

His unnecessarily arrogant tone may have complicated the response to his criticism. Emotional netizens, especially young mothers, were infuriated by his comments. They believe if public pressure can induce positive changes in the management of vaccines in general, then there should be no reason to try to quench that fire. Detailed difference in the numerous facets of the vaccination problem does not matter. Picking bones with public grasping of the issue “is equivalent to defending the evil,” as one popular comment under Hecaitou’s post quipped.

Hecaitou did not back off. Replying to one of the more supportive comments, he revealed his true concern: Chinese parents might be misled into distrusting vaccines totally, a consequence that would be detrimental to the country’s hard won public health gains. A Weibo account fully dedicated to the dissemination of vaccine related scientific information was visibly desperate: “I used to persuade parents that as long as the vaccines are from properly registered producers, they should feel assured of their safety. Now I feel like I am an accomplice in a crime.”

Chinese elites have a natural tendency in worrying about “panic attacks” in the society. One might say that this reflects a deep-seated condescension, seeing the public as incapable of critical thinking and independent judgment in the face of crises. But their wariness is not completely groundless. In 2011, days after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, many Chinese shoppers raided supermarkets to hoard regular sea salt, as they feared that future salts would be polluted by radioactive water. The episode created a temporary shortage of salt in a few towns. The collective fury of young Chinese parents can also be pretty “lethargic.” Last year, a sudden surge of angry calls for the indiscriminating execution of all those who are involved in child trafficking even pressed the nation’s supreme court to formally response, claiming that doing so would be tremendously counter-productive. It turned out that the “call for execution” was the machination of an online outlet to attract clicks. With such recent memories in mind, the concern that a public clenched by fear may turn away from necessary, legitimate vaccines is understandable, even though no evidence is available to show that this is actually happening.

Only this time the pushback against elitist condescension comes strong. Panic, as one commentator puts it, is a society’s natural reflex mechanism to danger. It acts like one’s immune system. Trying to mute such reactions will desensitize the body and make it vulnerable to future threats. “In this country, we need more panic attacks, not less.”

Amid the heated debate, a new term is chauffeured into the Chinese vocabulary: “the right to panic.” (konghuangquan) Supporters uphold the “right” as essentially a freedom of expression, the expression of fear. But others caution that even if the public has the freedom to air whatever they feel, it’s a different thing if media and those with influence choose to intentionally fan the fire of irrational fear. At the bottom of that debate is “opposite assumptions about whether public sentiment is being artificially subdued and whether intervention from the media is warranted.”

This is where the rationalists’ seemingly noble cause meets with intense suspicion. Their call for calmness and reason seems always fall in line with the government’s maneuvers to silence alarm and discontent. This time, while “the tragedy of vaccines” was being attacked for being misleading, reference to the report were quickly deleted all across the Internet.

The government also seemed to have seized the opportunity of this “rationalist backlash” to shift public attention from its responsibility in oversight to the safety of those compromised vaccines. The highly anticipated press conference held by central governmental agencies after the scandal broke dedicated substantial amount of effort to explaining to the public that compromised vaccines were unlikely to lead to toxic side effects. Even the WHO intervened along these same lines, issuing three statements in a roll assuring the Chinese public that the risk of adverse health risk is low. The intervention was so unusual that some on the internet suspected the authenticity of the statements, believing it’s the government’s plot.

The drift of public debate into the territory of risk and science is considered by some as “loosing focus” from the urgent priority of tracking those 2 million pieces of problematic vaccines that are still at large in the market. “Scientific rationalists” were believed to have played a key role in blurring that focus. Whether intentionally or not, they helped reduce the pressure on the shoulder of the authority.

In this clash between righteous public indignation and detached rationalism, a kind of cynicism is discernible on both sides. Agitated parents believe whatever maintains public fury works, even if it could be misinformation. Self-professed defenders of science, on the other hand, have no faith in an increasingly well-informed and well-educated general public, and seem to be more interested in establishing their own intellectual superiority than advancing actual improvement in social conditions. Accept it or not, the Chinese society has to zigzag toward better governance of public goods harnessing those flawed yet powerful forces. To slightly adapt a famous line from the Dark Knight: it is a progressivism that China needs now, but not the one it deserves.

It deserves something much better.

A Cure for Humanity, A Bitter-sweet Pill for China


“Now I firmly believe that the Nobel Prize is a hostile foreign force. Not to mention the previous (Chinese) winners, now they finally granted us one in the sciences, and they had to pick this particular field of study! In doing so it fulfilled its hidden agenda of tearing apart the Chinese society,” says Wuyuesanren, an influential personality on Weibo.

He meant it to be a half joke, yet it perfectly captures the bitter-sweet Chinese reaction to the Nobel Committee’s decision to award its 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to 85-year-old Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, for her contribution to the discovery of Artemisinin, a compound that helps the humanity to combat the deadly malaria that has ravaged many communities in the least developed parts of the world.

In many ways, it should have been the moment that the Chinese society has long awaited. In the quintessentially Chinese point of view, only the Nobel Prize in the sciences truly “counts”, as the peace prize proves to be too political and the one for literature too subjective. In the past, even when ethnically Chinese nominees such as Chinese American Steven Chu won the award, a joyful mood would sweep over China, and there has always been a discussion about when an “authentic” Chinese citizen, born, raised and educated in China, could win a Nobel Prize in the sciences. So you would expect Tu Youyou’s recognition by the Committee to be a cue for unconditional national   celebration. Yet the prize somehow acts like a gigantic boulder rolling over an open field full of land mines, touching off all kinds of explosions and leaving behind a smoldering landscape that might utterly perplex an innocent observer.

How could a seemingly apolitical, objective and straightforward Nobel Prize lead to such complications? The answer lies in the country’s own state of mind and its fundamental inability to fully internalize the troubling legacy that Tu and her generation of scientists have left. And when the full weight of the world’s most prestigious recognition is suddenly thrown upon the edifice that used to support and justify China’s own way of pursuing scientific advancement, the structure starts to wobble due to its internal contradictions. Alfred Nobel’s gaze turns out to be too glaring for a country whose scientific endeavors have been discounted for so long.

The discovery of Artemisinin, an active compound extracted from a traditional Chinese herb, is the product of the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution, two of the most tragic events of 20th century history. In 1967, Tu Youyou, then a young researcher at a Beijing-based Chinese medicine research institute, was dispatched by her superiors to participate in the secretive “523 Project“. It is widely believed that China initiated the project upon the desperate plead from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, whose soldiers were plagued by malaria while waging guerrilla warfare against the United States military in the unforgiving heat of Indochina’s tropical forests. No archival evidence seems to be available for this supposed origin of the Nobel-winning discovery, but it is clear that the scientists involved were operating under a pressing mandate detached from a general improvement of the human condition. Understandably, most of those involved were “volunteered” by an order from the top, just like Tu Youyou. Worse still, at a time when the country’s intellectual elites were being marginalized and “re-educated” en masse as “reactionary capitalist academic authorities”, the 523 Project, said to be directly overseen by Premier Zhou Enlai, might have become a shelter for those battered academicians.

It was under such conditions that Tu and her colleagues embarked on an improbable journey of groundbreaking discovery. Inspired by a thousand-year-old ancient record of herbal medicines, Tu came up with a way to extract a highly unstable compound from Artemisia carvifolia, later proved to be very effective against malaria. The pursuit met with unimaginable difficulties (the extreme shortage of proper instruments is but one of them) and involved tremendous personal sacrifices (including testing the new drug on the researchers themselves).

In recent years, the Project has become a subject of serious historical study, partly due to increasing international attention on the significance of the discovery (in 2011 Tu was awarded the prestigious Lasker Award in the United States). It has also become a source of bitter irony because of its special historical circumstances, as one Weibo post remarks after the Nobel announcement: “Just as China initiated a Cultural Revolution to completely destroy its traditional culture, it embarked on a parallel journey to seek a secret cure for malaria from its ancient medicines. How ironic! The fact that the 523 Project ‘incidentally’ protected hundreds of researchers from political persecution is a chilling reminder for every Chinese to remember.”

The Cultural Revolution mark on Tu Youyou’s discovery not just affected how people view its legitimacy, but also caused practical problems that later led to controversies dogging Tu for decades. A key problem is around how the work was organized and how the breakthroughs at every key stage of the drug’s development should be properly attributed. At a time when “private property” was seen as an evil concept, scientists involved in the 523 Project hardly had the luxury to consider things such as intellectual property or patent. The few key pieces of published work were collectively authored in the name of “The Artemisinin Working Group” and other pseudonyms, a common practice during the revolution. This causes headaches for back attributing the discovery. And in this area, Western academic norms and a unique Chinese historical reality inevitably clashes. In 2011, Cell, an authoritative journal in life sciences, published a paper that elaborated the rationale for the Lasker Committee to grant its 2011 award to Tu Youyou. The authors of the article upheld three key principles whereby they determined Tu’s “primary contribution” to the discovery: Who first brought the idea of Artemisinin to the 523 Project; who first extracted the compound with a 100% inhibition; and who conducted the first clinical trial. But Chinese researchers Li Ruihong, Rao Yi and Zhang Daqing contested this way of attributing credit, arguing that this approach imposes a modern appraisal method to a piece of research conducted outside the Western academic norm, i.e. Tu (or any of her colleagues) did not act strictly as a primary investigator (PI) as defined by contemporary scientific project management. They further argued that discovery of an active compound is not equivalent to the invention of a successful therapy. The latter requires a string of steps including not just the extraction and separation of the chemical substance but also the assessment of its therapeutic mechanisms, effects and its chemical structure. And their comprehensive review of the 523 Project reveals that other Chinese scientists played equally important roles in those multiple steps of the medicine’s development, even though Tu’s contribution is still considered “pivotal”.

The attribution controversy, not surprisingly, sucks up much of the oxygen in the aftermath of Tu’s winning of the most craved science award in China. Rumors about her fight with other colleagues to get the Lasker Award spread widely in the cyberspace. Some of the gossip-type posts almost border on personal attack, suggesting that she has “a bad personality” and is “very arrogant and unreasonable”, therefore “deserves to be criticized”. The phenomenon led some to deride the Chinese society for its “foul cultural roots,” full of jealousy and ill-will toward its heroes.

Luckily, credit for the discovery is not the only focus. The Cultural Revolution background of Tu’s research also inspires a completely different discussion: a critical scrutiny of China’s current scientific efforts. If China could achieve such an important scientific development under extremely modest Mao-era conditions, how come modern day state-sponsored science projects with much more abundant cash supplies do not deliver results with the same significance? This line of questioning touches upon a long-time sore point: rampant corruption in China’s academic field and the misaligned incentives for Chinese academicians. A series of 2011 People’s Daily commentaries on Tu’s recognition by the Lasker Award were reposted on social network sites, still creating strong resonance today. The commentaries take their aims at China’s wasteful academic systems that incentivize quantity over quality, which encourages Chinese researchers to produce loads of low-quality publications just to meet their quotas. The result is a “frivolous” academic culture. China’s mechanism to elect its fellows of the Academy of Science is also under fire after the revelation that Tu never made it to that empyrean of Chinese science despite multiple attempts in the past. Web posts remind the public that many sitting fellows of the Academy have been involved in plagiarism scandals or are mere opportunists good at pulling strings in the system.

The discontent was so intensive that it almost brought about a full-blown revolt against China’s scientific establishment: even the congratulatory letters to Tu from the “big bosses” of Chinese science, including the Minister of Science and Technology and the President of the Academy of Science, were openly ridiculed for their grammatical errors and inappropriate wording.

Compared to the above, the bickering over whether Tu’s award “vindicates” Chinese medicine is almost a side show. The fight over the value of Chinese traditional medicine is a perpetual fault line cutting deep into the Chinese cyberspace, with one side (the “science disseminators”) declaring it as nothing more than primitive voodooism and the other (the “traditionalist”) seeing it as a correction to the extremes of Western medicine. Both sides found condolence (and ammunition) in the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision. And when a Chinese journalist brought the issue before the Nobel Committee at the press conference, the spokesperson again handed both sides the sweets they wanted: Tu’s research had been “inspired” by traditional Chinese medicine, but the award was for her scientific discovery using modern methods.

It looks like the Chinese society still needs some time to absorb the aftershocks of Tu’s Nobel Prize. The breakthrough happened in such unique circumstances that some already claims that the journey to find Artemisinin is both unrepeatable and unrepeatworthy, for its toll on those Chinese scientists and its moral compromises. If that’s the case, then the question is: what’s still left with the Tu Youyou legacy? Maybe prominent Chinese scientist Rao Yi is right. He believes Tu’s achievement shows that “science is not the work of geniuses, but the result of a relentless pursuit of ordinary people with very limited resources.” An inspiration for generations of Chinese scientists to come.

A more sophisticated observer looks at the whole Nobel affair with a naughty grin on his face: “The Nobel Prize committees seem to have reached a kind of tacit understanding among themselves: experiment with multiple awards to trigger political discussions in China. In a society at once de-politicized and highly politicized, politics is everywhere. Even an award in the sciences can tap into abundant resources for (political) criticism. Because China is under such a magic spell, the Nobel Prize likes China.”

What It Means to be a Polluting Company that Has Lost Its Powerful Patron

When China’s former “Security Tsar”, Zhou Yongkang, went on trial days ago, I was intently watching the development of another story, the pollution caused by a lead and zinc mine in southwestern China’s Yunnan province that intoxicated an entire village’s children.

The two stories are only remotely connected, on the surface. The mine belongs to a company once controlled by Liu Han, the billionaire whose expansive business empire stretched from real estates to electricity and mining. In 2013, Liu and his brother were charged with 15 accounts of crimes ranging from murder to leading “mafia-type organizations”. They were sentenced to death and were both executed months later. Their rise and fall coincided with the political tides of Szechuan province, the southwestern power base of Zhou Yongkang and his son, Zhou Bin. By pleasing Zhou Bin, the Liu brothers secured their much needed political protection from Zhou Yongkang and his numerous protégés who occupied commanding positions in the top echelon of the Szechuan provincial leadership. The ultimate collapse of that entire layer of protection under the unbearable weight of the anti-corruption campaign of the Xi administration in the end exposed the Lius to fatal radiations of a super nova, costing them their lives.

In a country saturated by pollution stories and depressing accounts of their hapless victims, another one that involves the usual suspect of a major mining company and a small, helpless village could easily have been ignored. But this time, the intriguing alchemy of corruption and the environment produced something slightly different with a unique potency that had not been seen before in the environmental field.

A veteran reporter of contemporary Chinese politics once noted that the extent to which damaging stories about a powerful person can spread in China’s public sphere had become a precise indicator of that person’s political fate. In other words, China’s censors, hiding inside an opaque web of information control machineries, collectively constitute a much faster and more sensitive “nerve system” that signals a person’s political fortune than the country’s judges, prosecutors or disciplinary bodies. Too often, the first crack of business empires, stellar reputations and solid political backing that once seem unshakable emerges when negative stories appear in the media uncensored. Failure to mobilize the country’s censors indicates one’s vulnerability and exposure (but of course this only applies to those who are SUPPOSED to be able to do that).

The Yunnan story vividly illustrates that vulnerability. The first wave of media reports treated it more or less as a regular pollution story, with bland titles that says “Asia’s largest lead and zinc mine causes pollution”. But more discerning outlets, such as the politically weathered Caijing Magazine, quickly jumped on the juicier elements: ownership of that mine and its historical ties with an entire group of fallen heavyweights (including Liu Han and former Yunnan provincial chief Bai Enpei). If it had been two years earlier, the story would have probably been killed right on the spot. But with censors no longer standby to guard those interests, the story travelled unabated. What followed resembles the daily “circle of life” on the African savanna. After the big carnivores such as Caijing had first spotted and feasted on the game, China’s website editors gathered en masse to finish off the carcass. Accustomed to playing the game of Catch Me If You Can with the censors, they won’t let go of any opportunities to maximize the viewership of their news posts, sometimes determined by time windows as short as several minutes. And to do that they have developed an acute sense for vulnerability. Not long after the Caijing story appeared, website editors quietly “retrofitted” the titles of the original stories to harness the sexier corruption angles, entertaining with wordings such as “ex-mafia-head” which drew more attention. The censors once again turned a blind eye to these changes.

Left entirely on its own, the company resorted to pathetic tricks that were often used by those of much more modest backgrounds: key word contamination. Just one day after the news broke in the Chinese media, a dubious piece of article started to emerge on numerous news organizations’ official websites that contained the exactly same key words as news reports from the previous day: “Asia’s largest lead and zinc mine,” “pollution”, and the company’s own name. Yet the actual content of the article was pure corporate PR, praising the company for its environmental efforts. It took advantage of sections of the news organizations’ websites that were on sale for such materials and camouflaged itself as a genuine news item. As a result, search engines such as Google and Baidu were tricked to pick it up as news, “diluting” the pool of information that contained the actual negative coverage.

In a weird way, the fall from power and privilege manifests itself in terms of “exposure containing methods”. No longer enjoying the “free” service of diligent state censors, those “orphaned” polluting companies are thrown into the “market” where they have to buy their way out of their own PR mess.

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


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 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,, 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.