Monday, March 16, 2015

Under the Dome

Just watched what some are calling China's Silent Spring, the self-funded documentary "Under the Dome" by investigative TV reporter Chai Jing. Structured like a TED talk, it's almost two hours of damning information about Chinese pollution, the toothlessness of regulation and the fecklessness of everyone else. We see pollution-creating infractions happening with impunity at every level and learn that China's two fine-sounding environmental protection laws have not once been used. Hard-hitting muckraking journalism at its best! You can watch it on YouTube with English subtitles - I did.

Theoretically, I wouldn't be able to watch it here, not any more. It was released online at the start of the month and was soon watched by 100 million people, and promoted by the People's Daily site. The newly appointed Minister of Environment sent an SMS to Chai Jing congratulating her on raising awareness about the problem. But then press directives advised media outlets not to fan the flames, and soon video websites were directed to take it down. A friend assures me that it would be incomplete just to say it's been "censored," though - he thinks later taking it down was the price paid for first making something so critical of entrenched industry interests available in the first place: everyone who needs to know about it knows about it, and doubtless has access to it.

Focusing on censorship in China, as Peter Hessler describes with characteristic brilliance in a recent piece for The New Yorker, can be like looking the wrong way through a telescope. What's remarkable is not that an enormous apparatus of state control stops some things but that so much else gets through - including most of the things the apparatus tries to stop. The remarkable thing in this case is that this film, professional and clearly the work of someone with access and support, was made and distributed. My friend thinks it actually fits the current government push for "rule of law" - for a legal system whose laws are actually enforced. It calls for market competition to push state enterprises to innovate, urges its viewers to report infractions to their local authorities and suggests that regulation might be better if not drafted by the industries it's supposed to regulate. Corruption, we see, is pervasive and makes a mockery of efforts to tackle the pollution problem, but there's no suggestion the system as a whole might generate and sustain such corruption.

Perhaps, as in other countries, China's environmental crisis will mobilize change, getting people to see the need to rethink a way of living and doing business whose problems they had accepted as both unintended and inevitable, the price of admission to modern life. 

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