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In China, documentary film on air pollution quickly goes viral

'Under the Dome,' new film on China's air pollution woes, is quickly viewed by over 150 million online

The hottest movie in China this weekend wasn’t “Fifty Shades of Grey” or Jackie Chan’s latest, “Dragon Blade.” Instead, a pointed and emotional environmental online documentary has swept the country by storm, putting its air pollution crisis front and center days before the country's annual legislative sessions.

“Under the Dome,” made by a popular former reporter from China Central Television, was released online Saturday. By Monday, it had been viewed more than 150 million times on video portals, dominating social media such as WeChat and Weibo in the way the blue-black dress phenomenon recently swamped the Internet in the U.S.

The fact that the film was not censored and was posted on the website of the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, indicated a substantial degree of official support.

A cross between Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” a TED talk and a Lifetime tear-jerker, Chai Jing’s film personalizes the smog problem while holding officials’ feet to the fire in ways rarely seen in Chinese media. It suggests how ordinary citizens can take action to demand stricter government controls.

The state-run energy sector comes in for particular criticism, while the impotence of environmental officials is also revealed. More than 20 government officials are interviewed in the film. Chai even traveled to London and Los Angeles to look for answers about how those cities solved their air pollution problems.

The documentary landed just days before this week’s opening of both the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Though the two bodies are largely seen as rubber-stamp gatherings, they are closely watched for signals about shifts in the government’s priorities and agenda, and the environment is expected to be a key topic this year.

“Under the Dome” also debuted just a day after China named a new environment minister, Chen Jining, who was plucked from his post as president of the prestigious Tsinghua University. The move was a rare example of China appointing a minister who didn’t come up through the bureaucracy, and Chen reportedly sent Chai a text message congratulating her on the film.

In “Under the Dome,” Chai admits that for years she was not worried about pollution and never wore a face mask. But she became concerned about China’s dirty skies after discovering during her pregnancy that her unborn child had a benign tumor. She reportedly financed the $160,000 project herself.

Though she refrains from making a direct causal link between smog and the tumor in the film, she says, “When you carry a life inside you, what she breathes, eats and drinks are your responsibility, and you feel fear.”

Though most of the facts presented in “Under the Dome” have been widely presented in foreign and Chinese media, Chai’s celebrity and her approachable style (she uses a cartoon to illustrate what PM 2.5 means, for example) resonate.

“The Chinese public is really eager for knowledge, actions and solutions, and she did a good job of putting all the information together in an easy-to-understand way,” said Li Yan, head of climate and energy at Greenpeace East Asia. “People really want a platform and a vehicle to join in the debate and dig deeper into the problem.”

Li predicted that the film’s “unusual” popularity would help empower the Environment Ministry. “The timing of this is really unique, coming ahead of the ‘two meetings’ and with a new environment minister coming on the job,” she added.

But interest in Chai’s film chafed a bit for some longtime players in environmental circles.

“Lots of the statistics she presented had already been released many years ago and many of these issues had already been exposed,” said Wu Di, an environmental photographer. “Now we have to pay attention just because Chai Jing is doing a documentary?”

Still, he said, it was a “great thing” that the film was raising awareness – though he questioned how long the “fever” might last.

Among those interviewed in “Under the Dome” are Xie Zhenhua, deputy director of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission; Han Jun, deputy director of the Communist Party’s central finance affairs office; and Xiong Yuehui, director of the science standards office at the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

“About over 60% of the steel factories opened without any approval process. But can you really shut them down or replace them?” Xiong says in the film. “A 10-million-ton steel factory can support 100,000 workers. The steel industry in Hebei [province] has become uncontrollable.”

Ding Yan, director of the vehicle pollution department at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, says in the film that he is “embarrassed” about his work because his agency is so toothless.

In the film, Chai flies over L.A. in a helicopter and points out that the city has managed to decrease pollution even while adding cars to the roads. She hangs out with inspectors doing spot checks of pollution emitted by big rigs, and films a trucker who is being fined $1,000 because his vehicle was caught spewing smoke. (The L.A. segment begins about 1 hour and 17 minutes into the film.)

But in China, Ding tells her his agency doesn’t have the authority to replace or confiscate trucks that fail emission standards.

“So when you go out enforcing the law, you don't even dare to show your teeth?” Chai asks Ding. He replies: “I can't even open my mouth. How can I worry about others seeing my teeth?”

Viewers commenting on the film on the Sina web portal expressed both approval of Chai’s efforts and frustration at the government.

“After watching this documentary, I'm very angry. I finally understand what those ‘public servants’ are doing every day. They're all jerks and only know how to get money from the ordinary people,” wrote one. “Our party, please wake up. Otherwise, no one will trust you anymore.”

At the end of the film, Chai encourages the public to report polluters to a government hotline. Between 8 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday, the Beijing hotline saw the number of calls increase 240% over normal and the city’s environmental protection bureau had to add more operators to the hotline, the Beijing Youth Daily reported.

But in a poll conducted by Phoenix TV after the film’s release, 33.5% of the 27,240 respondents said they have no faith in the government and do not expect the smog to be cleaned in the near future.

Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Follow @JulieMakLAT on Twitter for news out of Asia

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