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China's silenced Jing

Why did the Chinese government erase any sign of a popular and important documentary from its Internet?

Millions of Chinese speakers around the world have watched "Under the Dome," the 104-minute documentary about China's air pollution situation. The documentary, self-funded by investigative journalist Chai Jing, was released online Feb. 28 and immediately went viral. By March 2, it had over 150 million views. Using a TED-talk/PowerPoint style, it puts into frightening perspective the level of air pollution in China, criticizes state-owned companies and the government for failing to implement strong regulatory standards, and calls on the people to take action.

The documentary was widely described as China's environmental awakening, on par with Rachel Carson's 1962 book "Silent Spring," which is said to have launched the modern environmental movement. Many praised the quality and boldness of Ms. Chai's work, vowing to take personal responsibility and seek solutions. One of China's most prominent environmentalists, Ma Jun, labeled it "one of the most important pieces of public awareness of all time by Chinese media."

Professors, scientists, and experts presented their own analyses and discussed the validity of Ms. Chai's arguments, the relationship between business practices and pollution and government oversight (or lack thereof) of air quality issues. Ms. Chai brought hundreds of millions of people into a much-needed, nation-wide, public debate on China's air pollution.

It seemed there was government approval, if not outright support for the documentary — at first. The People's Daily, the Chinese government's loyal media mouthpiece, initially promoted the documentary along with an interview it conducted with Ms. Chai. The minister of environmental protection personally thanked Ms. Chai for her work. Forbes points out that the documentary's "poignant criticism of government agencies ... and seemingly unprecedented access to official data and authorities" suggests support "from the very top." And Ma Jun said he sees the government's allowance of this "intense communication" as a "willingness to face the problem."

But shortly after the release, the Ministry of Truth issued instructions to all media to "refrain from further promoting 'Under the Dome'" and to regulate relevant "online public opinion." By March 3, Ms. Chai's People's Daily interview video was deleted, along with the media giant's own links to the documentary. The Shanghai Propaganda Department issued instructions to all levels of media to "absolutely discontinue coverage, reports, commentaries, interviews ... [and] take down special features" regarding "Under the Dome." It added instruction to "resolutely block and delete speech that uses this as an opportunity to cast doubt or attack the government." The Beijing Internet Management Office released a similar directive. On March 4, the People's Daily original Weibo (China's Twitter) post that announced the documentary release was finally deleted, and by March 7 , within a week of its release, "Under the Dome" was removed entirely from China's Internet, just like it never happened.

The documentary appears to have been initially cleared for release because no one expected it to actually resonate so deeply. Everyone sees the dense smog and begrudgingly lives with it. Residents complain and mock, but the government does not seem to care, and frustrations usually blow over within weeks, anyway. Last November's mocking of the so-called #APEC blue — the term given to the blue sky visible because smog was carefully managed during the APEC meeting that month — is proof of that.

That's the fine line in China's Internet: Online venting is acceptable, and satire is manageable. But Chai Jing's smog investigation was neither of those things. It was a serious look at the causes and solutions to pollution on private and government levels, and a call to action that launched a national debate. Ms. Chai told the people that they should not have to live like this; she told a nation that "this is how history is made, with thousands of ordinary people one day saying, 'No, I'm not satisfied, I don't want to wait. I want to stand up and do a little something.'"

Through Ms. Chai's work, people recognized that they are partially accountable for the air quality, and that they want the government to be accountable too. But in China, demanding accountability is never OK, even when the topic is as widely known and severe as air pollution. This is especially true as China's top officials convene this month for the nation's parliamentary meeting — a time when public sentiment should be focused on celebration of the state's legislative successes. So there will be no talk of strengthening environmental regulation. There will only be a creeping shutdown across the Internet, and the imminent fall of those involved. This is not China's "Silent Spring," precisely because this is China.

Jess Fong is a senior at Johns Hopkins University, studying international studies and economics, with a concentration on China. She spent a semester abroad at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Her email is jfong7@jhu.edu.

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