China’s Inconvenient Truth

A photo of pollution in Wuhan

Photo: Residential buildings in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Darley Shen/Reuters.

In late February, Under the Dome, a documentary by former television news anchor and investigative journalist Chai Jing, was released criticizing China’s environmental record. Her quiet, understated approach is charismatic. Armed with statistics, footage and interviews from a number of impressive sources, she flexed her investigative journalist muscles. The film went viral in China.

Within a week, the Party shut it down. The film was “spirited away by gremlins.”

Of course, it still exists online outside of China, and I recommend you watch it. The entire film is on YouTube, the translation of which was apparently coordinated by a grade 12 student from Mainland China via GitHub.

(I watched via this playlist by a different translator, which I had discovered before finding the project above.)

Even if you are not a China watcher, the presentation is very engaging — a master class in presentation skills. Many have compared it to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

Chai examines the impact of China’s energy mix, criticizing coal, diesel, oil, as well as the lax enforcement of the various ministries responsible and the corporations that control them. She closes with a number of suggestions including market competition and people power. I don’t know if opening up the market is the right answer, but surely the stricter enforcement that she calls for is necessary whether or not China reforms its energy sector. She promotes apps made with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs that allow the public to see and report businesses with excessive emissions to environmental watchdogs and publicly on Weibo.

Harnessing China’s powerful netizens to work with environmental NPOs might seem like a risky move. But just this year the government introduced new new environmental protection provisions that encourages “naming and shaming” of illegal polluters. Last year, President Xi himself declared war on pollution. This is an interesting use of open data, and can only be executed by having the right legal infrastructure in place (ie. buy-in by the government) and an engaged citizenry (ie. buy-in by the people).

Chai points out that this is a chance for Chinese citizens to test the fortitude of these laws and their government. The government is asking for transparency and public involvement in solving to pollution crisis in China. But as the pulling of this documentary demonstrates, they don’t want transparency and public involvement in pointing out how the government has failed thus far.

That criticism aside, awareness of how bad things are in China (and soon to be in India) is an important step, especially since they offer tools for the public to get involved. In Canada, emergency environmental reporting is devolved to the provincial and sometimes city level. This isn’t as convenient as China’s hotline number “12369” (which I can already recall by memory, just from watching the film), but just knowing that such infrastructure for reporting exists in the first place should be made common knowledge.

Documentaries like Under the Dome promote conversation around these issues (even though sometimes the politics involved can be … ahem … toxic). China is attempting to shut down the conversation in its own country, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the problem here. And if Canada wants to grow that $20B in trade we do with China, we can make sure that our government does so in a responsible way, leveraging the laws that the Chinese government has already put in place.

Author: Chad Kohalyk

Bellatrist, communitarian, tech contrarian. Generous with Likes. http://chadkohalyk.com