Beijing Diary

Air pollution: China has woken up, time India does too

Chai Jing's documentary, "Under the Dome" is deeply personal and doesn't pull its punches, naming and shaming China's biggest polluters.

 |  Beijing Diary  |  4-minute read |   05-03-2015
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When Chinese journalist Chai Jing last week released a self-financed, simply-made documentary on air pollution, she had little inkling of the response she'd get. For Chai, the endeavour was deeply personal. Chai, like many Chinese, had paid little attention to the toxic air above China's cities. "I never wore a mask no matter where I was," Chai says in the film.

But then she became pregnant. That changed everything: "When you carry a life in you, what she breathes, eats and drinks are all your responsibility. Then you feel the fear." For Chai, that fear became all too real. Her baby fell ill and had to have surgery. Chai doesn't know the cause of her baby's illness; but she wondered, could it have been the toxic air that she inhaled every day?

It was a search for that answer that led to Under the Dome, a passionate 100-minute documentary - a Chinese "Inconvenient Truth", if you will - narrated in the form of a TED talk.

Since it was posted online in China a week ago, the response has been remarkable - this is, perhaps, the first documentary film to have the distinction of going viral. Five days on, it has been viewed 26 million times on Youku, China's YouTube equivalent. A YouTube version, that has been partly subtitled, can be found here:

The stunning reception has underlined how serious air pollution has become for China's public. Chai's documentary is only the latest addition to what has, over the past two years, become a deeply passionate issue for urban Chinese. So much so that today, PM two point five is part of the daily vocabulary in Beijing (for the uninitiated, it refers to the most harmful particulate pollutants that measure less than two point five micrometres).

It is, perhaps, time that India becomes just as passionate about this issue, as my colleague Amulya Gopalakrishnan writes in this week's India Today cover story on air pollution. As she notes, a healthy adult inhales 15 cubic metres of air a day - "That's a whole roomful of air-filtered through the nose and windpipe". Or, to borrow from Chai Jing's film, she was breathing toxic air, like everyone else in Beijing, 25,000 times every day - air that was also seeping into her body, and also, into her infant daughter's tiny lungs.

It took a severe "airpocalypse" in Beijing in the winter for 2013, which saw close to a month of smog-infested skies, to jolt the Chinese public into action. As I report in India Today's cover package, the public awakening in China has been a watershed in many ways - a rare instance where public anger has exerted pressure on the one-party State to take far-reaching action to battle pollution. Chinese cities are today moving to put in place car bans, closing down factories and building as many as 28 nuclear plants to move away from coal. There is still far to go, but it is a start - one that would not have happened without a public movement.

Why Chai's documentary has been so powerful is that it is not only deeply personal, but it also doesn't pull its punches, naming and shaming China's biggest polluters, including powerful government-run enterprises like energy giant Sinopec. One powerful scene films a surgery on a lung cancer patient. The doctors discover blackened lymph nodes on her lungs. "Was she a smoker?," asks one doctor. "She never smoked," replies another. "It must have been the pollution in her hometown." He pauses and looks at his colleague. "Aren't you from the same city?". The surgeon's mask doesn't hide the colour draining from his face.

The debate triggered by her film couldn't have come at a better time: on Thursday, China's Parliament, the National People's Congress, opened its annual ten-day session. On the eve of the opening, it was clear that pollution - besides corruption - was the overriding public concern. The NPC spokesperson Fu Ying was moved to speak about air pollution in some detail at the press conference the eve of the opening. She said the legislature would discuss a strict air pollution control law "with more teeth" to penalise polluters.

China's Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday, in his opening session to Parliament, also devoted a considerable amount of time speaking about air pollution. "Environmental pollution is a blight on people's quality of life and weighs on their hearts," he said. "We must fight it with all our might."

Chai certainly has struck a nerve, so much so that the official censorship authority on Thursday sent a directive to Chinese media "to not hype" coverage about Chai to distract public attention as the Parliament session opens. Try as they might, the censors are far too late. The conversation in China has already begun. And we should perhaps be listening in.

Writer

Ananth Krishnan Ananth Krishnan @ananthkrishnan

The writer is China correspondent for India Today.

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