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 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.

Tiger-hunting, Season 2

The new administration of President Xi is known for being communications savvy. Previous social media stunts, including the “surprise visit” to a dumpling place in Beijing and the mysteriously viral animation introducing the Chinese political system, all mark an important departure from the Party’s rigid, hard-sell style of official communications.

But this week, the Central Disciplinary Committee makes people wonder if the administration went too far in the riddle-laden playfulness of its anti-corruption campaign, by releasing an article on its official website lambasting a corrupt Qing Dynasty prince regent who died more than a hundred years ago.

Ever since the President declared that the campaign would spare “no tigers or flies”, many have fallen prey of the anti-corruption apparatus. These include a former Politburo Standing Committee member, a deputy chairman of the Central Military Committee and former President Hu Jingtao’s chief of staff. All “big tigers.”

Observers have summarized the communications “ritual” of the “hunting” process after Zhou Yongkang’s downfall: first, government-controlled media release peripheral information, then they allow rumors to spread on social media without much hindrance, so that the public is fully psychologically prepared when the official news comes out. No surprise or wild speculations.

Such a sophisticated manner to “massage” the public psyche to avoid destabilizing speculations has won the President and his anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan (who was said to be a big fan of Netflix’s House of Cards) admiration for their abilities to have things under control. Therefore, it is no surprise that when the Feb 26 article appeared on-line, the public was automatically cued to ask: is the next tiger already within the hunter’s range?

Some immediately tried to decipher the code through the name of the accused prince regent. As he’s dubbed “Prince Regent Qing”, was this an allusion to someone who may also has that character in his name? Clever netizens were virtually giggling when they thought they had identified the alluded figure, former Politburo Standing Committee member Zeng QINGhong, who was said to be closely associated with the disgraced Zhou Yongkang. But phonetics seems to be too cheap a trick that the Committee could play. More learned commentators dug deeper into the article and summarized interesting facts about the Prince Regent: He was a prime minister, and a favorite of his boss (the country’s de-factor ruler, Empress Dowager Cixi); He deposited a considerable asset in foreign banks and even the Western media at that time considered it disgraceful; he was good at handling scandals, and was able to come out of big scandals bruiseless; He was keen in cultivating his patronage circles. These clues led netizens to believe that the article might be targeted at some other heavy-weights, say a former Prime Minister.

But could the enthusiastic observers be over-interpreting that article? There is at least some evidence that the article might be just part of a routine effort to educate the Chinese officialdom using historical anecdotes. For a moment, observers might have mistaken the author, a Mr. Xi Hua, for a pseudonym representing the President’s team. After all, hiding behind pseudonyms to attack political rivals has been a political tactic since as early as the Cultural Revolution. But a few mouse clicks reveals that Xi Hua is an actual person who just happens to share the same surname with the President. As a mid-level official who worked within the Party Disciplinary system, Xi Hua has a reputation for writing about corruption-related stories of the Ming and Qing dynasties, apparently using his leisure time. His talent has attracted high level recognition, which might be attributed for his article’s appearance on the Central Disciplinary Committee’s official website.

There are people who don’t buy that this is just another random educational article. “(Wang Qishan) never plays random. The fact that the Committee has released such an article means that Zeng has already been “locked on”. Now it’s time for some public opinion warming up.”

Official media determined to be elusive. Xiake Island, a Wechat account run by the International Edition of People’s Daily, published a “cute” article pretending that the editor was interviewing the Prince Regent face-to-face. In the interview, the Prince Regent defended himself against the accusations made by Mr. Xi Hua using somewhat flawed arguments. The intention of this interview? Nobody knows.

Finally there are those who are tired of the hunter’s game. “Wasn’t Prince Regent Qing’s accumulation of power and wealth the result of the Empress Dowager’s favoritism and the political system of that time? The relevance of his personal dispositions almost had nothing to do with it,” said one disillusioned commentator.

Another tried to come to term with the Committee’s riddle with an allegory, “The great writer Lu Xun once described the wickedness of a cat. After it caught a mouse, it did not devour it immediately but teased it until it exhausted to near death. And now it wants us to guess who the mouse is.”

How did China’s Spring Festival Gala turn into a feminist’s nightmare?

It’s the Chinese New Year again. Besides lunar new year mainstays such as fire crackers and Jiaozi, watching the CCTV’s (China Central Television) Spring Festival Gala has been “a force of habit”(CNN) since its debut in 1983. “Combine the viewers of the Oscars, Emmys, American Idol finales and MTV Video Music Awards — then throw in the Super Bowl ratings for good measure — you are not even close,” CNN provides a reference to understand the magnitude of the annual variety show. This was proudly broadcasted by CCTV as a somewhat envious compliment. (Yes, we in general hate the biased “Western media”, but never hesitate to quote them verbatim when they compliment.)

To many viewers this year’s show was nothing special. Ever since the diversification of entertainment became possible in the late 90s, the appeal of the show has started its gradual decline. Long gone are the days when a catch phrase in the show becomes a permanent establishment in the Chinese language almost over-night. Today, comedians have to borrow heavily instead from the vibrant internet world for puns and jokes that to some viewers are already too outdated to be relevant. For a person like me, the show has become a kind of background noise of which the only function is to remind people that it’s the New Year’s Eve.

But this year, in addition to the regular ridicules and parodies of the stupid show (which have become more fun than the show itself with the emergence of social network sites), a very serious conversation started to develop as soon as the show was over. It turned out that many female viewers were deeply offended and disturbed by the values expressed in the show. More specifically, they were aghast to see how a 4-and-half-hour show could squeeze in so much content demeaning to women in each and every way.

Imagine if NBC aired a comedy sketch that features a punch line comparing women with sexual experience to “second-hand products” and genuinely expected it to be funny (not as a ridicule of such references), or if the theme of a 10-minute sketch on the Academy Award show was about two men telling a “female loser” (30-year-old, single and overweighted) how to pick herself up by having an attractive super model as her role-model, with all sincerity. (This is of course not to say that Hollywood does not have its own problems with the portrayal of women.)

This was what ACTUALLY happened in front of 700 million pairs of eyes on the night of Feb 18, if CNN’s viewership figure is correct.

Many female viewers were fuming with anger. The hashtag #spring-festival-gala-discriminates-against-women (#春晚歧视女性) on Weibo accumulated over 5 million clicks in only 24 hours after the show.  A popular post (with close to 20,000 re-posts) describes the show as a complete collection of discrimination against women, “from appearance discrimination, to job discrimination, to marriage discrimination, to the objectification of women as a whole.” Serious critiques of the show quickly appeared on sites such as zhihu.com (a Q&A site similar to Quora). In one of the most viewed posts, the author cited the objectives set by the 1995 World Women’s Conference (held in Beijing) for “women’s representation in the media,” one of which was to “promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.” The author then asked pointedly if China’s national television station was promoting or actually impeding the achievement of this objective set 20 years ago.

What those female viewers find even more disconcerting is that neither CCTV nor those participating in the show (including many actresses) seem to consider this a problem. Indifference proves to be a bigger challenge for advocates of women’s right. Therefore, many of the commentators voluntarily took up the educational and enlightening role, disseminating arguments about why women should speak up and openly resist such treatments that they considered repulsive. Some of them started to spread images that they claimed to represent women’s deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, implying that it was largely due to women’s quiet acquiescence of injustice (even though such simplistic depiction of the Afghan situation met with strong skepticism).  Petitions were quickly put in place to call for CCTV’s open apology.

Such sentiments do not resonate with everyone. Accusations that such criticism is unfair and over-reacting have dogged the debate from the very beginning. There are also self-professed “feminists” offering counter-arguments that women should not feel entitled to treatments not proportional to their own capabilities, calling criticizers of the Gala a “feminist cancer.” From this mixture of rebuttals emerged a more comical “school” of thinking that the criticism represents “a blind adoption of Western values.” (Not surprisingly many upholders of such views are men).

Yet again, in the discussion of the world’s most watched variety show, two unconnected parallel universes appeared in China. When the heated debate about women’s representation by the Spring Festival Gala was still far from over on social network sites, China’s mainstream media outlets, CCTV included, were busy selling a different story about the show: “Anti-corruption themed sketches considered the most ‘edgy’ in the show’s history.”

The country acts as if it has watched two different Spring Festival Galas.

Milk Powder Nation

This week, a Hong Kong judge destabilized two fault lines deep in China’s national psyche with just one comment, causing earthquakes in the Chinese internet space with far-reaching aftershocks. As the Standard reports, Fan Ling court principal magistrate Bernadette Woo Huey-fang lashed out at parallel traders for smuggling infant formula from Hong Kong, and called the mainlanders’ reluctance to buy China-made milk powder a “national shame.”

Her comments definitely touched a raw nerve with a society already ultra-sensitive about the safety of its food. Ever since the first tainted milk powder scandal in 2008, the Chinese public’s confidence in the country’s dairy products has virtually collapsed and never fully recovered. In that incident, thousands of young children were sickened by infant formula laced with melamine, an industrial chemical added by producers to boost “protein” readings of their products. As a result of this and many other food scares, every new scandal will cause a heated national venting of discontent, which increasingly takes its target at the government. Early last year, the public debate about McDonald’s selling expired meat in China took an unusual turn when voices sympathetic to the American fast food chains started to challenge mainstream media’s “unfair” treatment of these companies. The commentators turned their fire toward the government, which they thought should be held accountable for not fulfilling its supervisory role over the Shanghai-based Chinese company that supplied the expired meat to McDonald’s. The debate marked a dismantling of the dominant nationalistic narrative that “foreign companies,” instead of domestic regulators, are to blame for such food scandals.

Not surprisingly, the Hong Kong judge’s comment unleashed another round of venting. Under the Weibo post by “Headline News,” a popular online news account with more than 30 million followers, the thousands of comments overwhelmingly shared the sentiment of the judge, with some going even further by claiming that there are too many national shames to give a damn. Serious commentators used the opportunity to deepen the discussion into a questioning of China’s “national strength:” The public’s insecurity about milk powder is a reflection of their lack of confidence in the country’s competence in general.

What the judge probably did not expect was the fact that she inadvertently stumbled on another fault line that has been very shaky since last year. Just when Chinese netizens were airing their disappointment with food safety, another line of questioning started to develop. “It is more shameless (for the Hong Kong government) to set restrictions for people to buy safe milk powder.” This came from comments picked up by BBC Chinese. Apparently it was referring to the quota system that the Hong Kong government set up in 2013 in response to a public outcry against mainlanders buying up powdered formula. Hong Kong parents complained that it was depriving their own babies of the access to this crucial product. Under the quota system, individuals leaving Hong Kong are allowed to carry no more than 1.8 kg of milk powder (roughly two cans), or they may face penalty and even jail time. A commentator at Southern Metropolis Daily echoed the sentiment of the BBC comment and questioned the value of the quota system itself, claiming that a “new equilibrium” of milk powder supply had been reached in Hong Kong under which the needs of both the Hongkongese and mainlanders could be met without restrictions. But other commentators’ concerns went way beyond the quota system per se. For them, a general anti-mainland tendency in Hong Kong should draw more attention, and this milk powder incident can easily be used to lend power to political oppositions to the mainland.

“We should not allow those who advocate ‘Hong Kong independence’ to use ‘anti-smuggling’ as a camouflage,” an op-ed on the pro-mainland Ta Kung Pao proclaims.