China: “upon all the living and the dead”

It is a little (actually very) late, but the incendiary, self-financed documentary Under the Dome by Chai Jing, one of China’s best known journalists, is worth watching. It is about air pollution, which is finally being debated in China.

I recall taking the train from Shanghai to Nanjing, and Shanghai to Hangzhou on successive days, and not seeing the sky at all, thanks to the thick brown haze that hung in the air. Chai Jing’s film, which was featured on the People’s Daily website (until they took it off), was viewed over 100 million times on Chinese video-streaming sites in a mere 48 hours. In it, she interviews a young girl in Shanxi:

“Have you ever seen stars?” Ms Chai asks.

“No.”

“Have you ever seen a blue sky?”

“I have seen a sky that’s a little bit blue.”

“But have you ever seen white clouds?”

“No.”

It is a brave and personal work, starting with her then unborn daughter being diagnosed with a tumour, which is blamed on the air pollution. From there, Chai travels the country, touching on the lives of those for whom, like the girl in Shanxi, air pollution is the norm; such is her standing in China, she is able to criticise the lax upholding of environmental laws. When she asks why these laws are not being upheld, she is met with a familiar refrain – that employment and economics always outweigh environmental concerns.

What is interesting when watching the film, is that Chai Jing is able to question the breaking of laws at all. That the video was released on the People’s Daily site at all means that is met with government approval, and it’s mere existence means that views must be changing. China is always wary of maintaining balance and stability, and any change within the country must be gradual. The release of Under the Dome surely signals the beginning of the long road towards an increased environmental awareness, and a willingness for open public conversation.

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