China Hails, Then Bans a Documentary

The country’s Silent Spring falls victim to government feuding

A man wears a mask as he waits to cross a road near the CCTV building during heavy smog on Nov. 29, 2014, in Beijing.

A man wears a mask as he waits to cross a road near the CCTV building during heavy smog on Nov. 29, 2014, in Beijing.

Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

It was no surprise that the Chinese government banned the environmental documentary Under the Dome, by Chai Jing, a well-known former television reporter. The surprise is that it took the authorities so long to do it. The film, which exposes the tremendous damage China’s heavy industry has done to the environment, and the powerlessness of the Ministry of Environmental Protection to enforce antipollution laws, attracted 200 million viewers in the week after it was released on the Internet for free on Feb. 28. Environment officials at first praised Chai’s chilling account, and state-owned media said the film was a wake-up call.

On March 7, Under the Dome disappeared from the Chinese Web. It was abruptly removed from file-sharing sites, and references to the film in state-run media ceased. Chai “really pointed fingers at the lack of regulatory enforcement on the government’s part,” says Hao Wu, a Chinese filmmaker who’s a fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation. “It was confrontational and cathartic. She was able to do what we cannot do: Go to government and say, ‘Here’s what you have done wrong.’ ”

Wu says the sudden shift from support to censorship reveals disagreement among factions of the government, perhaps between the environmental ministry and the powerful economic ministry. “It’s a reflection of some kind of political infighting that they chose to shut it down,” he says. Calvin Quek, head of sustainable finance for Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing, speculates that timing may have been a factor: “The government censored the film because it got 200 million views, and they did not want it to dominate the twin conferences,” the annual meeting of top party officials and the National People’s Congress, which started in Beijing on March 5.

Under the Dome
Under the Dome

Deleting the movie from public file-sharing sites, however, isn’t the same as erasing it from public memory. “The video has already gone viral and will continue to do so—perhaps even more,” says Angel Hsu, an expert in environmental governance and policy at Yale University who works frequently in China. As of March 10, the full video was still viewable on the website of independent newsmagazine Caixin and, for those in China with a virtual private network, on YouTube and several foreign news sites.

“Many people have saved the file, and there are ways to watch it if someone tries to search for it,” says Wen Bo, a longtime environmental activist who’s now China adviser for the National Geographic Air and Water Conservation Fund. “In today’s world, information spreads really fast. Preventing the free flow of information can really backfire.”

While censorship makes it more difficult to access the file, it also generates excitement over the film. “Given the lack of transparency, ordinary Chinese have a fascination with the unpleasant secrets of the government,” says Beijing-based writer Lijia Zhang. “Now people know about the inaction of local government, and how coal is produced just to keep up GDP levels. People are not surprised by such facts, but angered by them anyway. The days when the Chinese authorities can brainwash its citizens are over in this Internet age.”

The film could yet strengthen the hand of China’s environmental enforcers, who granted rare interviews to Chai. “I think it’s already served the purpose the [environmental ministry] had intended,” says Yale’s Hsu, “to jockey for more power and positioning within the government, where its enforcement capabilities have been notoriously weak.”

The bottom line: Despite a ban, Chinese can still find Under the Dome on the Web if they try hard enough.

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