Critical theme: China pollution, social media and politics

Critical theme

Our March 'Critical Theme' meeting featured a powerful film about China's pollution problems, followed by a discussion about environmental issues in China and the growing impact of social media.

Chronic air pollution is part of everyday life for many people in China. This photo shows Anyang, the most northern city of China's Henan province (Photo: V.T. Polywoda, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Our March Critical Theme meeting looked at the environmental and political issues raised by the film 'Under the Dome', which caused an internet sensation in China earlier this year.

One of China's best known journalists, Chai Jing, released the documentary on the internet on 28 February. The 103-minute film shows in graphic detail how China's pervasive smog is damaging to health, and sharply criticises China's environmental laws. The film was a sensation in China, garnering more than 100 million views on the internet in less than 48 hours. Viewing figures topped 200 million, but within days the online video was blocked for viewers in China.  

IIED showed the first half of the film and then opened a discussion about the the film, environmental issues in China and the political issues highlighted by the way the film was received. The discussion was led by Sam Geall, research fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), at the University of Sussex, and executive editor of the online environmental magazine

The Critical Theme meeting was led by Lila Buckley, a senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources Group. Afterwards, she said: "We grappled with the seeming contradiction of the state-promotion followed by immediate state-censorship of the film.

"What fascinates me is that while the hard-hitting content of the film was (surprisingly to many) apparently vetted and welcomed by the government and related bodies, the viral nature of the message was not. It seems clear to me that while the message of better pollution control is one that Chinese leaders want to take seriously, they want to be sure that they are the ones shaping that discourse."

She added: "In this context, this single journalist's 'personal war between [herself] and the pollution' had to be shut down before it took over the government's framing of the debate."

IIED provided live coverage of the meeting and we published a round-up via Storify.

About 'Under the Dome'

You can watch the film below, or watch it on YouTube:

Chai Jing's film is a hard-hitting and deeply personal documentary. After her unborn daughter was diagnosed with a tumour, Chai Jing quit her job to look after her baby. Although her daughter recovered, Chai Jing became increasingly concerned about the health impacts of Beijing's chronic smog.

She spent a year making the film and released it on the internet shortly before the annual full meeting of the National People's Congress, and just a day after the Chinese government named its new environment minister, Chen Jining. The film initially received a positive reception: in his first press conference, Chen Jining said he had already watched the documentary and had phoned Chai Jing to thank her for her contribution.  

However, just a few days later the video was blocked in China.

About the guest speaker

The post-film discussion was led by Geall, an anthropologist and writer on China, whose research interests include environmental journalism, the politics of climate change, public participation and citizen science.

Geall is currently working on an international research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) entitled Low carbon innovation in China: prospects, politics and practice. He was previously departmental lecturer in human geography of China at the University of Oxford. In 2013, he coordinated a policy study, entitled Promoting social media and public participation in China's Green Development, for the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED). Geall also edited the 2013 book China and the Environment: The Green Revolution, which traces the evolution of green activism in China.

About the series

IIED has set up the Critical Theme series of events to explore new ideas and broaden the knowledge of its staff.  The events cover a wide range of speakers and topics. Earlier this year IIED hosted a seminar on the links between climate change and food security. Other events have focused on the governance of Marine Protected Areas, the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) and its work on reducing urban poverty, and the importance of meaningful stakeholder reporting.