China is well known for its inexorable economic growth. A new documentary has sent a wake up call to the country's environmental consciousness. Will China finally start fighting its devastating pollution?
It was on January 12, 2013 that people in the Chinese capital Beijing realized that their environment had had enough. All of a sudden, day had turned into night; it was hard for people to breathe. Smog blanketed the city in a thick, grey mist and insulated its 21 million inhabitants from fresh, clean air. The day is now referred to as the "airpocalypse."
For the first time, a Chinese TV documentary has attempted to scratch the surface of China's smog problem. Within a week after publication late last month, 200 million Chinese watched "Under the Dome" online. In an unusual step, even Chen Jining, minister for the environment, praised the documentary and said that it should "encourage efforts by individuals to improve air quality."
For "Under the Dome," Chinese journalist Chai Jing's motivations started close to home: her daughter was diagnosed with a benign tumor prenatally - this was the beginning of his search to find out how bad pollution in China really is.
Jing's answer: "Really bad." China is the world's largest green house gas emitter. In Beijing, the air is contaminated with an average of 100 micrograms PM2.5, a type of respiratory dust. This is six times the amount deemed safe by European health ministries. Smog kills 350.000 to 500.000 Chinese every year. Soil and water pollution is another growing problem. NGOs and environmental experts now say that there are about 450 so called cancer villages in China, where unusually high numbers of inhabitants die of cancer prematurely.
Wake up call to Chinese population
All these facts have been known for years. The Chinese population has been shielded from them, however. "Under the Dome" has served as a wake up call. But only two weeks after it was published online, the documentary has been censored and taken off the internet in China.
Yan Shi, journalist from Shanghai, says that censoring "Under the Dome" does not limit its influence on the Chinese population. "It's a shame that the documentary has been deleted," she told DW. "Never before have we had such an open public debate on how to solve the problem. The environmental consciousness in China is growing more and more; people really want to change the current situation."
Growing environmental consciousness
Shi's impression is backed by scientific studies. As early as 2010, eight in ten Chinese respondents to a study of the Pew Research Center said that the protection of the environment should be prioritized, even if this leads to less economic growth and the loss of jobs. Current studies show that environmental consciousness in China is spreading.
Li Shuo, Greenpeace activist in China, asks: "How can this growing public awareness be transformed into policy changes?" He says "Under the Dome" is another culmination point in the growing Chinese environmental consciousness. However, there is no direct channel from public opinion to political decisions in China, Shuo says.
On Monday, protesters took to the streets in Xi'an, a city of four million, peacefully demanding political action to protect the environment: two people were detained straight away. "There are certain things you can do in Europe that you certainly cannot do in China," Shuo explains. Yan Shi agrees: "Protests are immediately cracked down on. You have to be very careful what you say or do in China."
'We make the difference'
Nonetheless, up to 50,000 "mass incidents," i.e., public demonstrations, occur in China every year. Environment minister Jiping said the pollution was now the leading cause of social unrest. This might be the reason why the Chinese government is desperate to tackle the problem. Funding for environmental issues has taken on inconceivable dimensions: $277 billion (257 billion euros) have been pumped into an "air pollution action plan" to combat smog in Chinese cities.
Greenpeace activist Shuo says that due to the plan Chinese coal consumption has already declined by 2.9 percent. "This doesn't sound like much, but it is actually a great achievement. Until now, it would have been unthinkable for Chinese coal consumption to even remain constant, let alone decline." Still, this is not enough, Shuo claims: "We need a more drastic approach if we really want to save our environment," he says.
It will take more than "Under the Dome" to make this change happen. Still, the documentary has influenced China's self-conception. "Before, people in China knew that pollution was a problem. But everybody said: 'We can't change the situation,'" Shi says. "But when I watched the documentary, I personally understood that we as individuals can make change happen. We make the difference."