Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Viral documentary is challenging China’s powerful polluters

Pollution has become China's "Inconvenient Truth".
Photo by Danilo Rizzuti/
A Chinese video has garnered well over 20 million views on video sharing site YouKu, and close to 5 million on Tencent Video.

What’s more, it hasn't yet been banned.

Usually that would describe content like celebrity gossip or comical animals, but this is Under the Dome, a meticulously researched documentary on the causes and implications of the country’s pollution crisis.

Pollution in China is an inconvenient truth. Nearly everyone agrees it is a problem, but the intricacies, scale, and potential solutions are not well understood.

Chai Jing—a former TV news anchor who produced Under the Dome with her own funds—has attempted to tackle the complexities of the issue much as Al Gore did for climate change.

In her documentary, Chai purposefully guides viewers through the data on pollution, weaving in interviews with experts, policymakers, and industry representatives.

The documentary—named after the Stephen King book that inspired an American TV series—is novel on many levels. There is an expertly animated section showing how particulate matter infiltrates the lungs.

Charts and disturbing images of pollution-ravaged lungs are presented with Gore-like effectiveness.

And there are many moving anecdotes from Chai about her personal relationship with pollution, which she believes caused her infant daughter to be born with a benign tumor.

But what’s most surprising is how brazenly Chai attacks some of the most powerful organizations in the country, from the coal and oil industries to the Ministry of Environmental Protection and state-run banks.

She makes a trip to a coal factory in Hebei Province to get a firsthand account of production.

Chai goes on to discuss the quality of coal and poor regulation of its disposal.

In recent years, our coal consumption has grown, the quality of the coal has gotten worse, we aren’t cleaning the coal, and there is little regulation of coal disposal.

The result is this: In China, the places with higher coal consumption have a much higher concentration of particulate matter.

Regulators and the oil industry

Chai moves on to talk about the impact of oil consumption on air quality, focusing first on vehicle emissions standards. She addresses the fact that, while China’s increasing reliance on cars is partly to blame for poorer air quality, lax regulation of heavy-duty trucks is even more harmful.

She tracks down drivers that have stickers on their trucks claiming that they have been cleared for the “China IV” emissions standards.

Checking their engines, however, reveals that they are well below these standards. While there are regulations that can put a stop to these “counterfeit China IV” trucks, she says, they are never enforced.

Chai attempts to find out which government department is responsible for enforcing these regulations. She finds a lot of buck passing.

Moving past enforcement, Chai turns to the poor quality of oil used in commercial vehicles.

She looks to find out why standards aren’t higher, and finds a revolving door between the oil industry and the regulators meant to keep it in check.

Banks, subsidies, and zombie companies

Looking for an example of the kind of heavy industry that consumes large amounts of the coal and oil she’s been discussing, Chai zeroes in on steel.

She reveals a systemic problem faced by several industries in the country: “zombie” companies, which are noncompetitive and obsolete firms that are kept alive primarily by government subsidies.

She later makes a more general point: The most important thing for the government to do is not to subsidize obsolete, polluting industries. What it should do is provide fair opportunities for the industries of tomorrow.

What to do about it

Amazingly, given the film’s critical tone and its high-profile targets in government and major Chinese industries, the video has not (yet) been blocked, although state-run news organizations have been directed not to “hype” the documentary further, according to China Digital Times, which monitors leaked censorship instructions.

Since that directive makes clear that the authorities are aware of “Under the Dome,” it’s not clear why Chai has been able to survive the censors.

Perhaps it’s because the video is so measured in its criticism, or that it simply became too popular too fast to shut down. Or maybe the government simply agrees with her message.

According to one government report, newly appointed environment minister Chen Jining said the documentary was “worthy of respect” and thanked Chai for her work.

Even with its popularity, though, Chai is just one former TV anchor. Her lecture closes by imploring others to act.

She tells anyone who is watching to find a way to help, comparing the experience of China to those of countries that have overcome once deadly pollution problems.

This article has been edited for length. Source: Quartz

Of course, Chinese officials have begun responding and deleting the documentary from various popular sites. Read more about that here

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