China's smog problem gets a popular airing

China's smog problem gets a popular airing
Steel plants belching smoke on a hazy day in Quzhou, Zhejiang province. Netizens have left comments online praising Ms Chai Jing’s documentary Under The Dome for being the most thorough look at China’s notorious smog without shying from criticising powerful state-owned enterprises.

AN ONLINE documentary by a former CCTV celebrity journalist on China's air pollution went viral over the weekend and has triggered inconvenient questions for the environmental protection authorities and state media.

Titled Under The Dome, the 104-minute documentary produced and funded by Ms Chai Jing has won praise from even a government minister and has also prompted local governments into disputing the statistics she cited.

There is also debate on whether the documentary's release ahead of the annual legislative session opening this Thursday - where pollution is set to be among the key talking points - could signal possible policy changes to fight China's smog problem, which boiled over in January 2013 with PM2.5 levels 40 times that recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Key causes are China's dependence on coal-powered plants for its energy needs, its heavily polluting industries such as steel mills, and rising carbon emissions as the vehicle population balloons.

Lax implementation of environment protection laws is also a factor.

Others say her film, which was released online on Saturday afternoon, has also shown up state broadcaster CCTV, with state media and netizens pointing out that it took a former journalist to tackle the hot-button issue in an in-depth, no-holds-barred style.

The China Daily newspaper wrote in an English-language editorial yesterday that "neither the central or local governments have made a documentary like Chai's to tell people how serious the pollution in this country is".

"This documentary about how grave the situation is, how it poses a threat to people's health, and why China needs to change its development mode in a fundamental way was made by Chai on her own and with her own money, which puts to shame the environmental authorities of both the central and local governments," it added.

Ms Chai's documentary has been likened to former United States Vice-President Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth.

Taking one year to produce with shooting done in the US, Britain and China, and costing one million yuan (S$222,000) reportedly from Ms Chai's own pocket, Under The Dome has garnered more than 100 million views since its launch on the Youku video-sharing portal and the People's Daily website.

Delivered in a format similar to a TED talk and replete with photos and footage from her decade-long stint with CCTV, the documentary sets out to answer three key questions: "What is smog? What are its causes? What are the solutions?" Observers say one key reason for the overwhelming response was her revelation that she was inspired by her one-year-old daughter, who was born with a benign tumour.

It is not clear if the illness is linked to smog.

Said Ms Chai, 39: "I'd never felt afraid of pollution before, and never wore a mask no matter where.

But when you carry a life in you, what she breathes, eats and drinks are all your responsibility, and then you feel the fear."

Even the newly appointed environmental protection minister Chen Jining has applauded the documentary, telling reporters on Saturday that he sent Ms Chai a text message to thank her.

Tens of thousands of netizens have left comments online praising the documentary for being the most thorough look at China's notorious smog that does not shy from criticising powerful state-owned enterprises or portraying government officials in a less than favourable light.

For instance, when asked why China would not shut down steel plants, a Chinese environment official was shown as saying: "Are you joking? A steel plant with a yearly capacity of 10 million tonnes usually employs 100,000 workers - there's no way you could close steel plants in Hebei province."

But there are also criticisms, with newspapers interviewing experts to discredit the documentary for being unscientific and inaccurate.

The environment agencies in coastal Hangzhou city, for instance, said it had 154 polluted days in 2014, and not 200 days as stated in the documentary.

Renmin University environment protection expert Zhou Ji told The Straits Times he is supportive of the documentary.

"Also, what I hope is that this documentary is more than just raising awareness about smog, but would usher in a new phase of open public debate on hot-button issues in China," Prof Zhou added.

This article was first published on Mar 3, 2015.
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