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2 March 2015 Last updated at 16:39

Under the Dome: The climate film taking China by storm

Child near a power station in Beijing, China (Nov 2014) For many children growing up in China, pollution has become a normal part of life

Only in China would a documentary on air pollution garner more than 100 million views in less than 48 hours.

Renowned investigative journalist Chai Ling has been widely praised for using her own money - more than 1 million RMB ($159,000: £103,422) - to fund the film, called Under the Dome. She first started the documentary when her infant daughter developed a benign tumour in the womb, which Ms Chai blames on air pollution.

Standing in front of an audience in a simple white shirt and jeans, Ms Chai speaks plainly throughout the 103-minute video, which features a year-long investigation of China's noxious pollution problem.

At times, the documentary is deeply personal. Near the start of the documentary, Ms Chai interviews a six-year-old living in the coal-mining province of Shanxi, one of the most polluted places on earth.

"Have you ever seen stars?" Ms Chai asks. "No," replies the girl.

"Have you ever seen a blue sky?" "I have seen a sky that's a little bit blue," the girl tells her.

"But have you ever seen white clouds?" "No," the girl sighs.

'Work before climate'

At other points, the documentary is deeply critical of the state's lax environmental laws. In one instance, Ms Chai follows a government inspector to measure the illegal pollutants coming from a coal-burning steel producer in central Hebei province.

Months later, she discovers the steel maker had yet to pay any fines.

A man in front of CCTV offices in Beijing, China CCTV's offices shrouded in smog - the organisation said Ms Chai shot the film independently

When she asks a provincial official why the coal-burning factories cannot be shut down, the answer is astonishingly blunt.

"It just doesn't work to sacrifice employment for the environment," Ms Chai is told.

Sources at Chinese state television CCTV, Ms Chai's former employer, confirmed the documentary was shot independently, but she had support from producers inside CCTV.

The original documentary was four hours long but another collaborator, tech entrepreneur Luo Yonghao, told her to cut it down to its current 103-minute length, the CCTV sources said.

BBC China Blog

The BBC China blog is where our teams across the country will provide a flavour of their latest insights.

We'll focus on the new and newsworthy, but also use our journalists' expertise to shine fresh light on China's remarkable transformations and upheavals.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bases in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think and send us your ideas. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

However, it is clear that she also worked to gain government approval for the documentary before its release. In an interview with the People's Daily, a major state media outlet, Ms Chai notes that she sent the documentary script and interviews to the National People's Congress - China's parliament - and the government office working on China's new oil and gas laws. Both teams offered comments and feedback, she says.

One of Ms Chai's collaborators, an investigative journalist named Yuan Ling, told a Chinese news site that he viewed an earlier version of the documentary that questioned China's "development model".

"I think this is very hard to discuss and there is no need to worry about things that should be considered by a prime minister," Mr Yuan said. He told her to eliminate that section, which was absent from the final version of the documentary.

Igniting debate

China's government leaders will appear to be very responsive to the concerns raised by Under the Dome.

Man in pollution mask in Tiananmen Square, Beijing (Jan 2015) Pollution has become a hot political topic for China's leaders

Chai Jing's documentary was released on 28 February, less than a week before China's annual parliamentary session begins. China's central government is expected to pass an ambitious new law that hopes to impose tough new regulations on China's coal-burning polluters.

But in China, passing a law is one thing. Enforcing it is another.

Beijing could certainly use public pressure in its bid to carry out the new rules. Laws from the central government are commonly ignored by lower level officials, particularly when they might affect economic growth.

China named its new Environment Minister, Chen Jining, one day before the documentary was released. In his first press conference the day after his appointment, he noted he had already watched the documentary and had phoned Chai Jing to thank her for contribution.

Ms Chai and her collaborators declined interview requests from the BBC. Sources at CCTV explained the team were wary of the foreign media. After all, their Chinese-language documentary had already reached its intended target, the vast audience inside China.

Perhaps it does not matter who supported Ms Chai's documentary before it was made. Certainly, it has ignited a national debate across China, with millions stopping to pay attention to an issue that has been lingering in the air for years.

Pollution in Shanghai Could a journalist's film encourage individuals to change their way of life to address pollution?

"My home is less than 5km [three miles] away from my office," reads a typical comment, one of millions of responses. "Starting today, I will not drive to work except on special occasions. I salute Chai Jing and I will do my small part to help."

Ms Chai now occupies a rare place inside China - someone with the moral authority to speak publicly against government policy, even if she must first gain their tacit approval.

Perhaps we should have suspected Ms Chai was bound for a rare perch in China all along.

"A country is built upon individuals; she is constructed and determined by them," she said in a speech to the Beijing Journalists' Association in 2009.

"It is only if a country has people who seek truth, who are capable of independent thinking, who can record the truth, who build but do not take advantage of the land, who protect their constitutional rights, who know the world is imperfect but who do not slacken or give up - it is only if a country has this kind of mind and spirit that we can say we are proud of our country.

"It is only if a country can respect this kind of mind and spirit that we can say that we believe tomorrow will be a better day."


Is Weibo on the way out?

File image of a man using the Sina Weibo microblogging site in Shanghai on 29 May 2012 A study found that almost 60% of accounts on Weibo had never posted a message

China's internet watchdogs have threatened to enforce real-name registration before. But this time, they're adamant all Chinese citizens must provide their real names and identification numbers before using social media sites starting on 1 March.

Nicknames can be used on the sites, but only after users hand over their personal details to the government.

The new rule will stifle one of the few venues for free speech in China, many fear. Specifically, real-name registration could hasten the slow death of Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

Once the only place to find vibrant sources of debate on the Chinese internet, Weibo is quickly losing momentum.

Fifty-six million people in China stopped using Weibo accounts last year, according to China's state internet regulator, registering a drop from 331 million accounts to 275 million accounts. Several internet companies operate Weibo services in China, though all function in a similar manner.

Those with Weibo accounts don't seem to be using them very much. Ninety-four per cent of the messages on Weibo are generated by just 5% of its users, or 10 million people, according to one study published last April by the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre. The same study found that almost 60% of accounts had never posted a message.

Scare campaign

Part of that decline can be attributed to the rise of WeChat, a mobile messaging platform that allows users to send messages privately to their friends. WeChat's flashy graphics and constantly-evolving menu of services makes Weibo forums seem clunky and dated.

This photo illustration taken on March 12, 2014 shows the logo of Chinese instant messaging platform called WeChat on a mobile device which has taken the country by storm in just three years. WeChat has grown in popularity very quickly attracting hundreds of millions of users

WeChat's invitation-only format must also give government censors some relief: if Weibo can be viewed as a concert stadium, allowing any government critic to be heard in front of a large audience, WeChat is like a series of private karaoke rooms, where conversation is limited to a select few. It is much more difficult to gain a following on WeChat than Weibo.

By extension, many attribute Weibo's demise to a scare campaign orchestrated by the Chinese authorities.

In 2012, the government issued a long list of rules banning Weibo posts that "threatened national security, reputation or interests". The Weibo accounts of prominent government critics were also closed, igniting a campaign to clamp down on Weibo's most prominent users, known as the "Big Vs".

Big V users are verified account holders, usually popular actors, writers or columnists, who attract millions of followers. At one time, it was a badge of honour to hold a Big V account. Now, the Big Vs must watch what they say.

Hundreds of them have been detained by police, their accounts policed for comments questioning the government. One Big V, Charles Xue, was arrested for soliciting prostitutes, thought the Chinese state media made it clear that his role as a government critic on Weibo was a key reason he was targeted.

Charles Xue Charles Xue was a Big V - but fell foul of the authorities

"When Xi Jinping took the top job, I think he understood the power of the internet to shape discourse and to influence the populace so he set about making sure that he could keep it all under control," explains Charlie Smith, co-founder of FreeWeibo.com, a website that monitors content that is censored from Weibo.

"Getting rid of the Big Vs was likely the killer blow for Weibo and set off a chain reaction of events. By ridding Weibo of these influential voices, from many different parts of society, he effectively silenced a generation that was starting to understand the power of the internet as a communication tool."

'Not sustainable'

To be fair, many of the Big Vs still operate on Weibo, though most have veered away from the controversial topics they discussed regularly in the past.

One Big V, columnist and writer Wang Xiaoshan, famously used Weibo to demand tighter food safety restrictions and address the imbalance of power between ordinary people in China and the seemingly omnipotent government authorities.

"Everybody is talking about the 'Chinese dream'," he mused in 2012. "But I think that in China, to achieve that dream, you have to have a monthly income of 100,000 RMB (£10,000; $16,000) or you must be a government official. Otherwise, you have to immigrate to another country."

Now, Mr Wang's comments are much more benign, featuring Hollywood movie reviews and repeated promotions for his online wine shop.

Ordinary people have also been warned to tone down their Weibo activity, or make sure it is unremarkable. Users face up to three years in prison if any controversial post they write is viewed more than 5,000 times, or is forwarded more than 500 times.

China's Weibo CEO Charles Chao (center) stands with Robert Greifeld, Nasdaq CEO, moments after Weibo began trading on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker symbol WB on April 17, 2014 in New York City. Could the party be over at Weibo?

In one instance, a 16-year-old boy in China's western Gangsu province was arrested after writing on Weibo that "government officials shield one another". The state media made sure to use his case as an example to others.

The onset of real-name registration will discourage more people from writing on Weibo. The loss of that forum for self expression is a short-sighted goal, according to FreeWeibo's Charlie Smith.

"The authorities are sowing the seeds of discontent. If they continue with these types of crackdowns, and it looks like they will, that discontent will lead to dissent, in some places on the internet, but also in the streets. It's not a sustainable approach," Mr Smith says.

It is possible Chinese authorities "believe that as long as people can continue to shop online, all will be okay. If that is what they believe, then they will be surprised when they find that this consumer generation wants to get their hands on things that money can't buy."


About this Blog:

Welcome to the BBC China blog, where our teams across the country will be updating you with their latest insights.

The idea is to focus on the new and newsworthy, but also to use our journalists’ expertise to shine fresh light on China’s remarkable transformation and the upheaval it is bringing to millions of lives.

We also hope the blog will offer a new dimension to our coverage, allowing us to explore stories and themes which we cannot easily get to in our usual news stories and features.

Most of the posts will be written or filmed by journalists in our main bureau, in Beijing, or in our other bureaus in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Please let us know what you think, and which subjects you would be interested to know more about. You can also use #BBCChinablog to keep up to date with our reports via Twitter.

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