Pollution’s Shadow Over the Future

 Industrial plant in China

‘Is the air in your country like this?” the motorized tricycle driver asked. “It’s terrible here,” he said. Any long-term foreign resident of Beijing has had this conversation scores of times.

Discussing the day’s air quality is now the default subject for awkward Beijing small talk. Smartphone apps relay up-to-the-hour information on the particulate matter index readings taken by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

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And pollution may be Beijing’s biggest impediment to winning the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Even the Chinese capital’s relative lack of snow seems a smaller obstacle than whether or not its winter skies will be choked with coal dust seven years from now.

During a visit by the International Olympic Committee Evaluation Commission during the final week of March, Beijing closed three of its four coal-burning plants and pledged $7.6 billion to clean up its air. Both externally and internally, Beijing’s 2022 Olympic bid is a pledge to itself to finally address pollution, especially air pollution, which was an issue the last time it held the games, in 2008.

The subject came into sharp relief in March, when a documentary called “Under the Dome” appeared on China’s popular online video websites. Part TED talk, part interview, part investigative report, the exposé on pollution in China has sparked a new debate about health and the environment.

Called China’s “An Inconvenient Truth” by some and its “Silent Spring” by others, the film’s director and protagonist Chai Jing is more Rachel Carson than Al Gore. Formerly employed by the country’s largest and most influential state-run broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV), Chai left her career as a television journalist to start a family. But during a prenatal exam she was thrust into a story that would give her more reason to investigate than any previous subject. Her unborn daughter had a tumor, one that would need to be operated on as soon as she was born. Chai blames the tumor’s development on Beijing’s now infamous pollution.

The documentary’s release date was chosen to coincide with the opening of China’s annual Two Meetings season. These are the China People’s Political Consultative Conference, a largely ceremonial body that includes several famous actors and former N.B.A. star Yao Ming, and the National People’s Congress, China’s primary lawmaking body. Both meet in Beijing. The Two Meetings and their annual March convocation have traditionally been a magnet for political activists.

Over 100 million people saw “Under the Dome” on popular online video channels like Youku. And then, as suddenly as it had become a sensation, on the following weekend (March 7) “Under The Dome” was scrubbed from almost all Chinese Internet sites.

What are perhaps the film’s most poignant lines may be what cast an official pall over “Under The Dome”: “In the war between human beings and air pollution, this is how history will be made: When millions of everyday people stand up one day and say: ‘No. I’m not satisfied. I don’t want to wait. I will not sit back. I will stand up and do something. Right now, right here, right in this moment, in this life.’”

That clear call to action is just the kind of message that China’s government does not want going out to “millions of everyday people.” Chai presents a conundrum for China’s government. She is neither a student with a banner nor a disgruntled worker with a pitchfork. Instead she comes across as what she is: a reasonably affluent, stay-at-home mom concerned about her newborn daughter’s health and the world into which she has brought her. Having worked for the state-run media’s largest broadcaster, Chai is also easily recognizable to millions of everyday people who saw her on CCTV. Think Diane Sawyer and you’re not far off.

The difference is that if Chai’s story were Diane Sawyer’s, then Sawyer’s network would work with her to produce and tell it. In Chai’s case, she specifically chose to produce the film herself and release it online, knowing CCTV wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.

Journalists covering the Two Meetings season saw her as one of their own and kept the story alive. But now, Chai and “Under the Dome” remain in limbo. If the video does not return to more mainstream sites, “millions of everyday people” may not be inspired to “stand up, right now.”

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