China cracks down on anti-smog sentiment after air pollution doc goes viral

Government censors wiped the explosive film from the Internet and arrested two protestors

Published March 9, 2015 2:58PM (EDT)

      (Screenshot, Under the Dome)
(Screenshot, Under the Dome)

A film this explosive was never going to be overlooked by China's government for long.

"Under the Dome," the documentary on China's massive smog crisis that took the nation by storm last week, has reportedly been taken offline by the government. And Monday, according to a human rights group, two people were detained -- one on charges of slander --  for protesting the government's approach to air pollution.

NPR reports that the protestors were outside a shopping mall holding up signs that said things like "Smog causes cancer. Everyone suffers," and "Cleaning up smog is the government's responsibility." They were released after being held overnight.

The film indeed criticized the Chinese government in its attempt to raise awareness about the need to bring air pollution under control, although its director, journalist Chai Jing, wasn't exactly operating as a whistleblower. According to the Guardian, she had input from officials at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, and she sent the footage of them explaining how powerless they are to enforce anti-pollution laws to other government officials before releasing the film. The environmental protection minister, Chen Jining, said publicly that he was “particularly pleased” with the film, which plays "an important role in promoting public awareness of environmental health issues."

But nobody could have anticipated just how popular the film would be -- it racked up 175 million views in its first two days online -- which the Guardian speculates could be the reason for the censorship. The Communist Party’s central propaganda department told media organizations not to report on it, and an interview with Jing in the People's Daily was pulled offline. (The film is still available on YouTube, which is blocked in China: you can watch a translated version here.)

The state's actions, as a consolation, only came after millions of Chinese citizens saw for themselves the dangerous reality of air pollution -- it remains to be seen if that public awareness, once cultivated, can once again be suppressed.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Air Pollution Censorship China Coal Human Rights Smog