"Under the Dome," former CCTV anchor Chai Jing's documentary on air pollution in China, received first exposure after it was released on the website of official newspaper People's Daily. It has since been viewed over 100 million times on Chinese video hosting websites, and has breathed new life into an ongoing public discussion about pollution in China. People's Daily released the video along with an interview with Chai [Chinese], which CDT's Mengyu Dong has translated:
People’s Daily Reporter (PDR): When you left CCTV, why did you choose smog as a topic to focus on?
Chai Jing (CJ): This was not a planned project. At the time my child was sick, and I wanted to spend some time with her and take care of her after I quit my job. I declined all job offers. While I was taking care of her, my feelings about the smog became more and more intense; my whole life was affected by it. Also, all of society was becoming more concerned about air pollution. Professional training and the instinct of a mother made me think it was necessary to answer these questions: What is smog? Where did it come from? What should we do about it? So I did this investigation.
PDR: How did you think of making this public?
CJ: At first I didn’t. I just searched for sources on my own and asked experts, hoping to solve some puzzles. I retrieved satellite pictures of North China over the past ten years. I could see that air pollution had existed for a long time. I live in Beijing, so why wasn’t I aware of that? I went to Tang Xiaoyan, the director of the Air Quality Guarantee Team for the Beijing Olympics. She gave me the PM2.5 data of some month in 2004. It was equivalent to “heavy pollution” nowadays, and the Beijing airport was shut down. However, the media reported it then as “fog.” This shows how society lacked awareness about air pollution at the time.
As a member of the media, I feel deeply responsible, because I was in Beijing yet I felt nothing. I had done a number of reports on pollution and I always felt as if pollution only exists when you see a chimney or a factory or a mine. So I was living in a big city and was feeling nothing.
Everyone learns out of ignorance. Now that I am aware of it, as a member of the media, I have the responsibility to explain it to everyone. Not to sensationalize, not to dodge, just to explain as clearly as possible. Because if people underestimate the difficulty and complexity of controlling pollution, they may lose patience and feel hopeless. If people treat the problem too lightly and leave it the way it is, that is even more unacceptable. So if we explain the situation as clearly as possible, publicly, perhaps many people will change as I did, and contribute something to improve air quality.
PDR: Where did you go in the past year?
I visited many academic institutes that study air pollution inside and outside of China, did field work at some heavily polluted sites, and investigated the problems with law enforcement behind the situation. I contacted the Development Research Center of the State Council, the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, the Industrial Policy Bureau at MIIT, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and other administrative bodies. I also visited cities that have experienced heavy pollution, like London and Los Angeles, hoping to learn from their experiences with air pollution management.
PDR: What did you discover?
CJ: I wanted to answer three questions: What is smog? Where does it come from? What can we do about it?
PM2.5 is too small for the human eye to see, we are at war with an invisible enemy. So this time I brought equipment to test the smog, volunteered to participate in human experiments, analyzed elements in the air we breath, and photographed the results of carbon settling deep in lungs. I wanted to explain to everyone what smog is—its characteristics, dangers, and components.
With the results of source analysis from scientists, I could answer the question “where does the smog come from.” More than 60% of air pollution in China comes from the burning of coal and gas. The smog issue, to a large extent, is an energy issue. In 2013, coal consumption in China surpassed the rest of the world combined. The growth of China’s automobile market is one rarely seen in history. As a developing country that is growing at the world’s fastest pace, China has to face the challenges of quantity and quality at the same time. Through investigation, I discovered four major coal and gas related issues in our country: massive consumption, relatively low quality, a lack of pre-usage cleaning, and a lack of post-usage emission control. I also attempted to reveal the management and law enforcement dilemmas behind these problems.
As for the “what can we do about it” question, we do have a path to follow. Looking at the experience of the UK and the US, we see that pollution in London, where the Great Smog occurred, was even more serious than in China right now. But pollutants went down 80% within the first 20 years of pollution control. Los Angeles, where photochemical smog was once a grave problem, now has 3 times more cars than it did in the 1970s, but emissions have decreased by 75%. Just as Xie Zhenhua [vice-chairman of the NDRC] said, the experiences and lessons of mankind already prove that pollution can be resolved in a timely manner. China has promised to reach its peak carbon emissions around 2030. Carbon emissions and smog have the same origin, and reducing one will have coordinated effects. Now that the peak is set, we must aim in the direction of a green, low-carbon, circular economy, and not continue down the road of GDP worship. A nationwide management system, energy strategy, and industrial structure will lead to change, which will hugely impact the life of the common people. The creators of the future are the people who seize these new opportunities.
PDR: You have done a lot of previous reporting on pollution, and won the “Green China Person of the Year” award in 2007. What are the differences between this project and your previous reporting?
CJ: I have done a few pollution reports in recent years, but they were all judging the matter based on the status quo—going only so far as to analyze high-polluting firms and the GDP impetus of local governments. I myself was confined to the simple mindset of “development versus environmental protection.”
This time I could go beyond time and geographic constraints, revisiting issues from the past. After rethinking the current situation of energy-intensive, high-polluting firms, I see the impact they have on the Chinese economy, and think environmental protection and economic development need not contradict each other. Air pollution was not brought on by “Reform and Opening up.” Actually, we need more sufficient market reforms to solve the problem. Environmental projection is not a burden, but a source of innovation. It can promote competition, generate jobs, and fuel economic growth. The international experience of pollution control has proved this. First of all, the government should decrease unnecessary administrative interference and let the market be the main force of resource allocation. Second, the government is indispensable. It must make policies and strictly enforce rules in order to guarantee fair competition in the market—survival of the fittest. These two points are all in line with the direction of our country’s reform.
PDR: Then what do you think common people should do?
CJ: I personally don’t want to say what other people should do and how they should do it. That is a bit obsessive. When I was young, I once poured soapy water on the roots of a tree. My grandma didn’t say anything, but simply shovelled up the soapy water and dumped it somewhere else --- whatever people choose to do, it’s because they cherish and care at the bottoms of their hearts.
I used to be unaware of the smog. Now that I cherish the air I look for a suitable way to live my life. For example, I try not to drive, I participate in public legislation hearings, I take issue with construction sites that raise dust, and call the environmental protection hotline 12369. I ask restaurants to install equipment according to regulations, ask gas stations to maintain and recycle equipment. I present these examples as just one small part of what we can do. I believe people have their own unique ways of cherishing, and their own unique practices.
PDR: What makes you hopeful about air pollution management?
CJ: This year I have been visiting people as an individual, including some people at government agencies. Nobody declined to speak with me. When they answer questions, they are outspoken and straightforward. I think they all hope that we can publicly discuss the problems because there is only hope for resolution after these problems have been demonstrated. The depth of understanding determines the speed of resolution.
This year I started a dozen WeChat groups, co-founded with experts from in- and outside of the official system. For such a long time they have provided support without seeing any return. Among them, Li Kunsheng, the director of the Automobile Bureau of Beijing’s Municipal Environmental Protection Agency, left a deep impression on me. I told friends that this person made me ashamed of myself. Sometimes, even when I thought that something was not quite feasible, he incessantly continued to publish articles. Sometimes I would receive two or three articles from him in one night. His deep concern and his placement of the public deep in his heart inspired me. Even the people who criticize him deeply revere him, because he is a man of sincerity.
When I visited an expert in the petroleum industry, I said “Please don’t take offense if my questions seem too sharp.” He said, “It’s ok. What you ask is of great concern to the media and the public, and the answers should be publically available.” He was very frank too. Every country needs to find an optimal balance point between environment and economy, and the ability for open discussion is a prerequisite. This time around I felt very deeply about this point.
In China, many people hope to improve their environment and are striving hard to do so. Simply speaking, everyone wants clean air. What is a social consensus? No consensus is stronger than this one. In this I have faith.
PDR: Besides this lecture, what else have you done?
CJ: Currently, the “Law on the Prevention and Control of Atmospheric Pollution” is being revised, and I have sent my interview material and articles to the Legal Affairs Committee of NPC, hoping to provide some reference for the revisions. They read my documents word for word, attached suggestions, sent them back and called to thank me, saying they would consider them during revision.
I also sent the documents to the team working on reform plans for the national petroleum and natural gas system. I was surprised by the feedback I received. The only suggestion they had for me was: if there is no limitation on the article’s length, maybe I could say more.
I think the positive attitude of legislators and policy makers is because this is precisely the time for reform. They need to better inform and involve the public in discussion to reach a consensus. The public is a core power of air pollution management. No one is more aware of the source of pollution than are the common people, and no one better loves our homeland.
PDR: I think that your emphasizing your identity as a mother was very relatable. But did you have any apprehensions about that approach?
CJ: I had very serious misgivings, mainly concerning my right to talk about her. This is her life, and I had to consider what kind of impact it could have on her in the future, this was my biggest pressure. Later my husband said, “You should say it, I deeply feel that after having the baby—especially after she was sick—you had a completely different attitude about air pollution. This was your fundamental motive and you cannot avoid that. If you avoid mentioning her sickness, then there is something behind that choice. It’s as if getting sick was bad or shameful. You shouldn’t be apprehensive or nervous, you should trust the basic kindness of society.” His words convinced me.
PDR: Not only can I understand that, but am strongly moved by it.
CJ: Before someone becomes a mother, they are only concerned about the world for a couple of decades, and that’s the end. “I’m responsible for my own life and nothing more.” But truly, after she was born, I felt much more responsibility for the future. If there was no such emotional drive, it would have been very hard for me to spend so much time on this project.
PDR: What was the biggest difficulty you ran into?
CJ: It The limits of my own understanding. Air pollution is an unusually complex phenomenon. When I first started, some people said that the topic covered too many fields and is difficult to make clear. I felt this point deeply, and was was concerned that any inaccuracy would be very damaging. I found many experts to review my work, but I still cannot guarantee complete accuracy, I can only try my best. If there is something wrong, we’ll simply correct it. If anything is insufficient, there will be people who can improve on it.
PDR: How much did the film cost? Who invested in it?
CJ: Around one million RMB [about $159,400] including filming in China and abroad, and also post-production. I invested the money myself. Some foundations in China contacted me to offer subsidy, but at the time I wasn’t sure what I could come up with. I had to take care of my baby and wasn’t sure when I could finish. I didn’t accept their help, but I am very grateful for the offers. I published a book two years ago and used my remuneration to fund the film.
PDR: Did you establish your own company to make the film?
CJ: No. This time was only personal investigation. The screening is not for profit either. People who worked on it with me were some friends of mine: Laofan, Fanqie, Mayi, Sansan, Xida, Chenchao, Wuhao, Zixiong, Xu Cen, Jiaxian, Niannian, Xiaomi—around ten people. We shared the joys and the sorrows. Without them, there would have been no project. I am very fortunate. If there is another chance in the future, I hope to again work with them to document and analyze society in transformation. [Chinese]
Also see CDT's translation of a political cartoon by Rebel Pepper on the myriad and varied Chinese responses to the film, or a recent propaganda directive ordering media organizations not to further promote the video, and to regulate online public opinion concerning it.