Matt Schiavenza is the senior content manager at the Asia Society and a former contributing writer for The Atlantic.
A film criticizing Beijing's pollution record has logged millions of views, and the government now appears to be acknowledging its failures to implement reforms.
On Saturday, Chai Jing, a former television journalist from China, released a feature-length documentary film that, unusually for China, took the government to task. Titled Under the Dome, the video featured Chai giving a presentation on stage, using both photographs and slides to examine how China's notorious air pollution got so extreme—and why the Communist Party has failed to fix it. Jing's interest was personal: Her daughter underwent surgery soon after her birth to remove a tumor that, Chai claims, was caused by pollution.
Under ordinary circumstances, the Chinese government might have swiftly removed the video from Youku, China's YouTube, before it could gain much traction. But the film has been left untouched, amassing tens of millions of views and touching off a spirited discussion online. Under the Dome, which is embedded below, has even received praise from senior government officials.
“Chai Jing’s documentary calls for public environmental consciousness from the standpoint of public health,” Chen Jining, China's environment czar, said. “It deserves admiration.” This isn't how the Communist Party normally reacts to videos that criticize its governance.
The government's reaction to Under the Dome is particularly noteworthy given that under President Xi Jinping, who took office in 2013, government suppression of the media has intensified. In addition to maintaining long-held bans on Facebook, Twitter, and other foreign websites, Beijing has cracked downon any private networks that provided a workaround to the Great Firewall. And in something of a throwback to the Maoist era, the Communist Party has even promoted a song praising Internet censorship on state-run television.
Why did Under the Dome get a pass? One reason is tone. Chai, an experienced television anchor, framed her story as a critical investigation rather than a call to action. In China, this distinction is crucial. A much-cited Harvard study found that while the Communist Party tolerates some dissent, the government works hard to stifle overt provocations. Then there's the subject matter: Environmental problems transcend social, linguistic, and economic barriers in China, and air pollution is much harder to conceal than government malfeasance.
In this spirit of semi-forced transparency, Beijing has acknowledged that it isn't close to solving its environmental problems. Last month, a top government official said that China had to cut emissions by as much as 50 percent in order to make any noticeable progress toward cleaner air. Achieving this while maintaining economic growth won't be easy—but when dealing with a problem so palpable, the Chinese Communist Party has no other choice.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.