China's Ever-worsening 'Airpocalypse'

March 11, 2015Global Challengesby East Asia Forum

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China's air pollution goes beyond the big cities.

Under the Dome, a documentary released on 28 February 2015, has the potential to become a turning point in China’s long march against the ever-worsening environmental crisis.

When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, it brought environmental concerns home to tens of millions of ordinary Americans. It led to an overhaul of the national pesticide policy, resulting in the banning of DTT and other forms of synthetic pesticides.

The book was a clarion call to action for environmental activists in the 1960s. The powerful book has been widely credited for shaping the US and global environmental policies for decades. Behind the Great Firewall of China, a leading investigative reporter called Chai Jing produced a stunning documentary on the smog problem that could one day rival the impact of Silent Spring as the turning point for the environmental movement in China.

The 143-minute documentary ran more than 100 million times in little over two days. It ran 126 million times on Tencent’s popular video site alone and it has completely commanded the country’s attention. Chai’s documentary film was the most discussed topic on the country’s social media platforms and there were 280 million posts relating to her film Under the Dome on Sina Weibo, a micro-blogging site.

China’s new Environment Minister Chen Jining, a renowned environmental scientist, had already sent his congratulatory note to the journalist, expressing his admiration. Chai’s choice of title for the documentary is telling. Under the Dome is also the title of an American science fiction series about a little town called Chester Mill cut off from the rest of the world by a massive and indestructible dome filled with toxic smog.

Chai compares China’s current environmental crisis to that of Chester Mill, where the entire country lives and breathes inside the dome filled with toxic smog and there is no escape. The documentary started as a mother’s quest to understand why her baby girl was born with a tumour and then turned into a yearlong investigation about the country’s ever-worsening air pollution problem, dubbed the ‘airpocalypse’.

The country’s smog problem is more than just about China’s addiction to fossil fuel consumption. She traces the origins of the smog problem to big steel and coal producing provinces like Shanxi and Hebei, sacrificing the environment on the altar of GDP growth.

Chai also takes her scalpel to Chinese big state-owned oil giants, whose persistent refusal to invest in producing higher grade and low-emission fuel is contributing to the ever-thickening smog. It is quite damning to learn that in China, the petrochemical industry sets the standard for fuel production and ignores or outvotes the Ministry of Environmental Protection Representative.

The film reveals the power of the big three oil companies that threaten to shut down supplies if the central government agencies impinge on their turf. Even the most powerful National Development and Reform Commission, Beijing’s key economic planning agency and price regulator, looks less omnipotent in front of the big oil bullies. Who would have thought that?

The documentary also shines a light on the so-called zombie companies mostly steel mills that rely on government handouts and cheap loans to survive. It talks about these companies’ crude and basic products that no wants to buy as well as their minuscule margins. ‘10 million tonnes of steel production equates to 100,000 jobs, who dares to shut it down’, says one local official.

The tension between environmental costs and job protection is at the heart of China’s struggle to curb excess industrial capacity and contain the environmental crisis.

One of the most memorable segments of the documentary is about the frustration, idealism and sense of powerlessness among China’s environmental protection officials. One official says in front of the TV cameras that he dares not open his mouth because it shows to the world that he has no teeth.

There are countless scenes of environmental officials unable to fine polluters or stop offenders. One petrol station owner tells officials that they have the duty to collect samples from his shop — which is selling substandard diesel — but not the right. This anecdote alone nails the problem of environmental protection in China. The Ministry has the least power among big government agencies and state-owned enterprises.

The film also zooms in on the environmentally damaging practices of ordinary citizens who like to burn substandard coal and drive their cars everywhere even when shops are within walking distance. There is also a call to action at the end of film for citizens to use their smartphones to record incidents of pollution and post them online. The film also has a sobering message for commodity exporters like Australia that have been economically relying on Chinese demand for so long. A lot of imported iron ore and coal used to produce crude steel is now gathering dust in Hebei. This could only go on for so long. Rising environmental awareness in a China filled with toxic air will eventually choke mining industries in countries that supply China with polluting commodities.

Public opinion is clearly and overwhelming on the side of a more sustainable and inclusive green growth. As China’s most powerful businessman Jack Ma remarked, what is the point of having economic growth when you can no longer see blue sky?

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