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Under The Dome — Chinese Documentary On Air Pollution Spurs Government Action?

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A recent, widely seen documentary on air pollution in China — by the name of “Under the Dome” — appears to have had a strangely pronounced effect on the Chinese government.

Rather than stifle those involved, or brush the matter aside, some higher ups have even praised the documentary. Is a sea change coming? Has it already occurred?

While the Chinese government has made some moves towards addressing the issue of air pollution (electric vehicle incentives, clean energy development, etc), the scale of action needed to truly address it hasn’t been there. With the issue becoming more and more a focus of public discussion, though, perhaps real actions will be coming soon?

The new documentary was reportedly seen by around 175 million people in China — quite a large chunk of the country, really. The film was produced by a notable former news anchor and environmental reporter, it’s worth noting — so it didn’t just appear out of nowhere. The higher ups in China no doubt were, at the very least, aware of it.

The country’s new environment minister, Chen Jining, commented on it, noting that it was a reflection of “growing public concern over environmental protection and threats to human health” — and even compared it to the 1962 publication of Silent Spring. Silent Spring, for those not quite old enough to know, was a seminal event in the growth of the movement against the use persistent pesticides (DDT, etc) in the US — and the broader “environmental” movement as well. (Author’s note: Perhaps something similar will eventually occur with regard to GMO agriculture, which has a number of notably “negative” effects on the environment and agricultural resilience/productivity. Points which are often brushed aside by proponents.)

Worth nothing is that the producer of the film — the former news anchor Chai Jing — apparently “paid little attention” to the ubiquitous smog of her home city Beijing originally… until she got pregnant. Shortly after getting pregnant, she found out that her child had a “benign” tumor. In other words, her motivations for making the film were personal ones.

“I’d never felt afraid of pollution before, and never wore a mask, no matter where,” stated Chai, 39. “But when you carry a life in you, what she breathes, eats, and drinks are all your responsibility, and then you feel the fear.”

“If I had not had this kind of emotional impetus, I would have found it very difficult to spend such a long time completing this.”

Interesting. That does seem to be the way that people generally are — until something starts affecting them a great deal on the personal level, how much are they going to really care? You could easily make the argument that that’s part of the issue with the public perception of climate change — it sounds like something that will affect someone else, off in some other future time and place. And that just isn’t a compelling narrative for most people.

As Climate Progress pointed out in its coverage, there has been some criticism of the documentary — it hasn’t all been praise:

Chai herself is obviously the standout subject of the film, and there have been some criticisms. Chai and her husband have enough money to give birth in the US, causing some to posit hypocrisy. There has also been pushback against the suggestion that pollution was the cause of her child’s tumor.

Tumor-causing or not in this specific instance, the degree of environmental pollution in China requires few additional stark reminders. China has 1.35 billion residents, and some 600 million of them are being affected by the pollution according to “Under the Dome.” A recent analysis by the Health Effects Institute estimated that the country’s smog was responsible for some 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010 alone.


Based on the figures/information put out there by the World Health Organization, roughly 7 million people died in 2012 as a result of exposure to air pollution — outdoor air pollution was apparently responsible for roughly half of these deaths. The majority of these deaths were in south and east Asia — in and around China, in other words.

Of all the forms of air pollution, one that has been given a lot of attention in China is PM 2.5 — a type of particulate matter air pollution roughly 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter. The small size allows penetration deep into the lungs — and has been linked to everything from heart disease, to asthma, to lupus, to diabetes, to cancer, to low-IQ, to autoimmune diseases, etc.

To give you an idea of how much of a problem this type of air pollution is in China, the northeastern capital city of Harbin saw its PM 2.5 index reach 1,000 last year, more than 3 times the limit of what is considered “hazardous” (300) — and well, well above the “safe” limit of 20. Research has estimated that, on average, air pollution has cut the lifespan in northern China by 5.5 years… not to mention how it affects quality of life.

One particularly interesting section in the documentary criticizes the lax enforcement of vehicle emissions standards — vehicles that claim to meet government regulations apparently often, simply put, don’t. Hmm…

A final note — with the apparent success of the documentary, shares of BYD (a top manufacturer of EVs, electric buses, and other clean technologies, amongst other things) rose ~4%. Easy logic to see there. BYD is looking likely to benefit considerably from any strong moves towards combatting air pollution and vehicular emissions.

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Written By

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.


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