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Smog Documentary Goes Viral in China

FILE - Commuters wearing masks make their way amid a thick morning haze in Beijing.
FILE - Commuters wearing masks make their way amid a thick morning haze in Beijing.

A documentary by a former state media investigative journalist about the dangerous health impact of China's smog has gone viral on the Chinese Internet, just days before the country hosts top level meetings in Beijing.

Chai Jing’s gripping, nearly two-hour investigative documentary begins with her standing on a dimly lit stage in jeans and a white blouse, talking about one of the worst bouts of smog Beijing has seen in recent years, during the winter of 2013. That winter was when she learned she was pregnant.

“This was the PM 2.5 curve for Beijing in January 2013, when there were 25 days of smog in one month," Chai says.

FILE - Cars drive on Three Ring Road amid a heavy haze in Beijing.
FILE - Cars drive on Three Ring Road amid a heavy haze in Beijing.

Behind her is a large graph of that month’s measurements for PM 2.5, tiny particles in the air that are absorbed by the lungs and blamed as a cause of heart and lung disease.

Chai says the birth of her daughter, and the fact she was born with a benign tumor that had to be removed quickly after birth, prompted her to learn more. She wanted to answer three basic questions for her child: What is smog? Where does it come from? What can we do about it?

She is not alone in her concern about China’s massive pollution problem, more than 100 million people online have watched her documentary "Under the Dome."

Surprisingly for China, a country that heavily censors online activity, the video and commentary continues to spread, and the country’s newly-appointed Environmental Minister Chen Jining has even praised the video.

Watch the documentary on YouTube:

Too widely spread to block

The head of the Greenpeace energy and climate change campaign in Beijing, Li Yan, says the documentary has become too widely spread to block.

“The discussion on social media triggered by Chai Jing’s film has been very vivid. Very lively. A very heated debate and it has already taken on its own life,” says Li.

But the issue was nowhere to be found on the front pages of several major Chinese language news websites, or in Chinese state media.

Some of the debate online has focused on reports Chai was wealthy enough to give birth to her daughter in the United States and people have questioned her loyalty to China. Others have been upset by the suggestion that Chai makes in the video that smog was to blame for her daughter’s tumor.

Chai’s daughter is just a starting point for the discussion about China’s heavy reliance on coal, the inability of environmental authorities to enforce the law, and the role powerful energy interest groups play, including state-run enterprises, in slowing change.

The film was released just days before China hosts the so-called “twin sessions" - annual political meetings held in Beijing for the country’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress, and the political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Li Yan says China’s new Environmental Protection Law went into effect last month and there is growing willingness among the leadership to tackle environmental issues.

“The Chinese leadership looks more and more determined in perusing the quality of growth, instead of quantity. They are becoming more open and vocal, talking about a better, cleaner growth. Also, 2014, was the first year in this century that China’s coal use dropped,” says Li.

Following a meeting of Asian Pacific leaders late last year in Beijing, China set a goal to peak its emissions by 2030, but for many that is already much too long a wait.