In the film Under the Dome, Chai Jing, a former reporter and newscaster for the state-owned China Central Television network, conducts a TED talk-style presentation. She parades one sad, salient statistic and story after another: a girl who has never spotted Ursa Major; a Shanghai river with levels of toxic benzopyrene 290 times the legal limit; state-owned fossil fuel companies suppressing environmental regulation in the greed of industry. Under the Dome, reveals the environmental crisis that China is currently in.
Chai paid approximately $160,000 out of pocket to produce the documentary. She made Under the Dome while caring for her sick daughter, who while recovering from a benign tumor was consigned indoors during half of 2014 to escape the smog blanketing Beijing.
The film was released on February 28, 2015. In less than two weeks, it received more than 200 million views. Chai’s grassroots call-to-action—“It’s tens of millions of ordinary people … One day, they will say “no.”—rang out across dozens of websites, domestic and international.
But within weeks, the film disappeared from the Chinese Web at the demands of the Chinese Communist Party, another victory for the censorship machine, “The Great Firewall.” State officials took up the environmental flag, but in a different way.
At the conclusion of the National People’s Congress parliamentary conference in March 2015, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said, “I want to tell you that the Chinese government is determined to tackle environmental pollution. … More support, including capacity building, needs to be given to these environmental law enforcement departments.” Whereas Chai called for a movement of the people, Li called for extra government muscle. Which view is correct?
China does not lack for environmental regulation. As Under the Dome reveals, it lacks enforcement. Heavy-duty truck manufacturers brush aside regulation using phony compliance stickers. Oil refineries self-regulate. Steel manufacturers disable pollution control devices and sell the power instead.
It is not that China is incapable of battling pollution. In preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics hosted in Beijing, the government spent $17 billion in atmospheric cleanup. From July 17 to September 20, most automobiles were barred from the city. Hundreds of regional factories, of steel mills and cement factories and coal mines, were shut down. Blue skies slowly percolated through Beijing’s omnipresent haze and for once, residents strolled down the streets without white air masks.
But 2008 is gone, and in the aftermath, some $40 billion worth of Olympic facilities are little more than ghost towns. The black clouds have returned to Beijing and to Taiyuan, Urumqi, Lanzhou, Baoding, Chongqing, Jinan, and Shijiazhuang. And the pollution is not confined to metropolises. Acid rain stunts rice crops. One state-sponsored study estimated that 8 to 20 percent of the country’s arable land is tainted with heavy metals from industrial leachate. Worse yet, the two culprits—chemical fertilizers for monoculture agribusiness and dirty coal to supply 70 percent of the nation’s grid power—will only grow stronger as the population grows larger.
Baby steps have been taken. In 2013, China spent $54.2 billion on renewable energy projects, and renewable energy is increasingly available in the United States, and direct energy rates have fallen. In a historic step in November 2014, the United States and China pledged to fight pollution and climate change hand-in-hand. By 2030, China promises, carbon-free nuclear power will account for nearly 20 percent of China’s power generation.
But can the government be blamed entirely for the problem? Does the industry not bear some social responsibility? What about America? In 2006, researchers led by Jintai Lin at Peking University in Beijing wrote that 20 to 33 percent of China’s air pollution was associated with exported products and that 20 percent of those products were sent to the United States. Pollution, not just labor, has been outsourced.
This documentary has brought forth a serious crisis, one that affects millions of people. Although not a new issue, it has finally been realized by people all over the world. Under the Dome has inspired those who have viewed it, potentially sparking a revolution in the fight for the well-being of the environment. And it is not only up to the government to fix these problems. The people of China—and the people of the entire world—are able to take steps in preserving the Earth itself, even if just by watching a documentary.