Under the Dome: China’s ‘Silent Spring’ moment flickers and fades

Red Pepper's translation of a political cartoon on reactions within China to "Under the Dome" (From China Digital Times)

Rebel Pepper’s translation of a political cartoon on reactions within China to “Under the Dome” (From China Digital Times)

It seemed too good to be true.  When former CCTV anchor Chai Jing’s 104-minute self-produced documentary “Under the Dome” was initially posted it clearly struck a nerve.  In the first 48 hours of its posting on Tencent, it received over 60 million views.  Resembling a TED talk, “Under the Dome” features Chai talking her audience through video, images, statistics, animation, investigative reporting and interviews that address three principle questions: 1) what is smog? 2) where does it come from? and 3) what should be done about it?  “Under the Dome’s” enthusiastic reception, and the fact that it was produced by a CCTV journalist and released with the cooperation of such powerful state media platforms as Youku and People’s Daily online, suggested to some observers that China’s ‘Silent Spring’ moment had finally arrived, when an open and frank national conversation about the state of China’s environment could finally be had.

But within a few days, online access to “Under the Dome” within China had been blocked.  China’s media watchdogs had clearly been nervous about the documentary from the beginning and its release was quickly met with directives to media outlets (and leaked to China Digital Times) to “regulate” public opinion surrounding the documentary.  This was followed by more specific instructions “to create a favorable atmosphere of public opinion” during the days leading up to annual session of the National People’s Congress and

refrain from sensationalizing certain sensitive topics coming from the Internet and society. Media and websites of all types and levels (including Weibo, WeChat, and news portals) must absolutely discontinue coverage of the documentary “Under the Dome” and its creator, as well as reports, commentaries, interviews, and special topics that concern or extend to this film and its creator. Websites and services that have already carried content must take down special features or clamp down on the backend. Discontinue reporting on discussions related to certain departments and work units concerned with this film. Strengthen management of forums, blogs, Weibo, WeChat, and other interactive platforms, and resolutely block and delete speech that uses this as an opportunity to cast doubt or attack the government.

This was followed by the unambiguous command to “delete” “Under the Dome” from all video streaming websites in China.  At this point, the documentary had been viewed about 200 million times.  While its release coinciding with the beginning of the National People’s Congress was almost surely purposeful, the timing clearly pushed beyond the comfort zone of the Central Propaganda Office.  But what ultimately killed “Under the Dome” was probably less its searing message itself than the intense reaction it generated.  The Party State is often surprisingly tolerant of criticism within China, especially when that criticism focuses on environmental issues.  But when people are galvanized around a single message, when that criticism begins to take on the appearance of a larger social movement, when it becomes, in other words, a collective act of criticism – that’s where the Party draws the line.  And it did not take long at all for “Under the Dome” to reach and summarily decimate that line.

In a recent post on WeChat (and translated on China Digital Times), popular science and psychology writer Tang Yinghong argued that “Under the Dome” went viral not because it provided any new information about pollution to a population somehow kept in the dark about such things.  The dangerous level of air pollution in China is something that most people are familiar with, and Chai Jing’s documentary provided little material that wasn’t already readily available to the general public.  Instead, Tang attributes the documentary’s popularity  to what he calls the “liberating effect of conformity” or, basically, the freedom to vent.  “Under the Dome” in other words expressed the pent-up feelings of millions.  Tang’s analysis indirectly condemns the Party-State’s attempts to control access to information and shape “public opinion” as achieving the opposite of its intended effect:  “If authorities allowed society to freely discuss, reflect, and criticize smog since it first appeared in China, then there would be no way for Chai Jing’s video to have gained such wide publicity.”

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