China quashes debate on viral documentary on air pollution

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Marco Werman: It takes a village, they say, but sometimes all it takes is a mom. A 39-year-old mother has broken wide open a national conversation in China about air pollution. Chai Jing is a well-known journalist and author and she's made a 104-minute video called 'Under the Dome'. People find it compelling because it's very personal, like when she interviews a girl in one of China's most polluted provinces.


Jenni Duggan: She asked the little girl, has she ever seen stars? And she says, no. And she said, have you ever seen blue sky?  And she says, I've seen a little bit of blue sky. And then she asked her, have you ever seen white clouds? And she says no. That's very compelling to imagine a six-year-old child never seeing these things that most people in Western countries would take for granted.


Werman: Jenni Duggan is a freelance journalist in Shanghai. She says Chai Jing's film has created an enormous buzz in China since it came out over the weekend.


Duggan: It really has gone completely viral. I think at last count I read today that the estimates that it has received 200 million hits.


Werman: And no censorship. I mean, the film does take aim at government policy. I gather the state-run news media have promoted it.


Duggan: Yeah, that's right. There certainly has been a lot of discussion about it here, or certainly a lot of coverage of it here in the state-run media. Also, online discussion of the program on the documentary has so far been allowed. It's so far been discussed very widely, very openly on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, other online forums, all of these things that are routinely censored, but it has been allowed to be discussed and debated.


Werman: Mm. You mentioned, Jenni, the compelling story of filmmaker Chai Jing, which seems to have resonated with a lot of viewers. She drives the film much like Al Gore drove Inconvenient Truth. What is Chai Jing's story? I know she had a daughter who was born with a benign tumor. Does she blame bad air for that condition?


Duggan: No, she didn't link her daughter's condition to air pollution in any way. She didn't try and link the two. I think that would probably be an impossible thing to do, but she said that it certainly made her much more aware of the pollution. She said prior to having her daughter, it wasn't something that she really thought about. I mean, she was aware of it like everybody else, but it wasn't a big concern, a big fear. But she said that after having her daughter she felt afraid, and now she said she keeps her daughter indoors. She lives in Beijing, where the air quality last year, I think Beijing had more than 170 polluted days last year, and Chai Jing describes about how she has to keep her daughter indoors for, I think she said half, basically half of the year last year, and she feels like she's keeping her daughter a prisoner.


Werman: So it's a compelling film for Chinese, but is there anything to suggest that they or the Chinese central government are ready to change their habits, change their lifestyle?


Duggan: Yeah, I think so. I think the Chinese government are very aware that air pollution is a really big topic among people. It's a huge, huge concern. And also the Chinese politicians themselves. I mean, they live in Beijing, they have to breathe the same air as everybody else. So it certainly is a really big concern.


Werman: You're a mother as well, Jenni. I know Shanghai isn't as bad as Beijing in terms of pollution, but it's still pretty bad. How much do you worry about the impact of the bad air on your kid?


Duggan: Yeah, in Shanghai our air isn't as bad as Beijing, but this winter hasn't been particularly great. So you worry about it on a day-to-day basis.


Werman: What do you mean when you say it's not particularly great? Do you have to walk out with a face mask, or do you ever have days where you just don't leave the house.


Duggan: Yeah to both. Most people I know have an app on their phone that checks the air quality, and certainly every parent I know checks it every morning, so instead of checking what the weather is like we check what the air quality is like, and if it's bad it'll determine what you do on a day-to-day basis. So particularly with young children. So if it's unhealthy or very unhealthy you might just cut down outdoor activities. You mightn't go to the park, for example. Most people I know with children, and it's certainly a big thing in Shanghai and Beijing anyway, families would have an air purifier at home. So the air purifier would be turned on. If it goes up a notch to very unhealthy, yeah, the face masks would probably come out. If it goes to hazardous, probably avoid going outdoors. Turn the air purifier up to high.


Werman: Journalist Jenni Duggan in Shanghai telling us about the film Under the Dome. Thank you very much.


Duggan: Thank you.


Werman: And you can see that film with English subtitles at So will Under the Dome be China's reckoning about air pollution, like the '60s were here in the US?




Werman: The great Tom Lehrer in 1965. We had songs like that in the '60s and books like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and the crying American Native public service announcement. Maybe now is when the people of China come to the realization that wearing face masks and staying indoors just isn't sustainable in the long run.




Werman: This is The World.