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Pollution is changing the way China does politics

A documentary about China's notorious pollution went viral last week.
A documentary about China's notorious pollution went viral last week.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Ever since 1989, when troops massacred hundreds of protesters around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, China's ruling Communist Party has built its legitimacy on a bargain with the people that is unspoken but universally understood: the Party promises economic growth, and citizens don't make a fuss about the absence of democracy and the freedoms that go with it.

But that bargain is changing. And there are signs of it, however subtle, in the drama surrounding a viral video that gripped the nation this past week.

Why China censored a viral video its own minister had promoted

A Chinese documentary about the country’s notoriously bad pollution, "Under the Dome," hit the internet on February 28. At first, some in government signaled support — it was good for citizens to care about their environment.

"I think this work has an important role in promoting public awareness of environmental health issues, so I’m particularly pleased about this event," the country's new environmental minister, Chen Jining, told a press conference three days later.

But when the film became too wildly popular, attracting at least 200 million views, government censors moved to block it. Some officials had strongly criticized the video. The conversations around it had just become too sensitive.

Still, China has about 641 million internet users, which means something like a third of the country's total online population may have seen "Under the Dome" before it was taken down. It captured the public imagination, and in that we can see the contours of a different bargain between the party and the people taking shape.

The basic demands of the people are stretching beyond "make us richer"; these days, it’s "give us a decent quality of life; let our children breathe clean air and eat safe food."

The next question, of course, is: "Or what?" The Party, obsessed since Tiananmen with maintaining stability, doesn’t want to find out the answer to that — and its sometimes-contradictory responses to popular dissent and to pollution are, at base, driven by fear.

"Unprecedented in China's internet history"

"Under the Dome" is a detailed look at the causes and effects of the thick smog that regularly chokes Chinese cities. It’s still available on YouTube with English subtitles:

Across the country, millions have been talking about it. China analyst Michael Zhao called the hype around the film "unprecedented in China’s Internet history."

In it, presenter Chai Jing, a former veteran reporter with state-run news network CCTV, shares her worries about the effects the acrid air of Beijing is having on her baby daughter.

"Already on the way home from the hospital, I started to feel scared," she says. "The smell of black smoke and burning fire was everywhere."

Her concerns struck a chord with many urban, middle-class Chinese, who face the same issues as her — and their government is under pressure to do something about it.

China’s shifting bargain with the people

A family walks near Tiananmen Square on a smoggy day

A family walks near Tiananmen Square in Beijing on a smoggy day. (Kevin Frayer/Getty)

The Party has so far met its promise that it will look after the economy with phenomenal success, even with the recent slowdown. Since moving to a market economy in the late 1970s, China has averaged about 10 percent growth a year, lifting more than 500 million people out of poverty.

The problem for the Communist Party is that its success could prove its undoing: decades of rapid growth have transformed the country, creating a huge urban middle class.

Just a generation ago, with the experiences of the horrifying famine caused by the Great Leap Forward that began in the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution in the '60s and '70s, Chinese families were focused on fulfilling basic needs such as food.

These days, aspirations go beyond that. That does not mean citizens are demanding the kind of democratic rights the Tiananmen protesters sought. But they do include having a government that will fix the slew of health and environmental problems plaguing China — not just the terrible air pollution, but everything from poisoned soil and rivers to the shoddy food standards that left hundreds of thousands of babies sick from tainted milk in 2008.

Many emigrating wealthy Chinese cite pollution as a top reason for leaving — evidence enough for Party leaders that they have a potential crisis on their hands. If people with the means to do so are leaving the country  sick of the filthy air, the poisoned water that’s a sign that the government is not keeping its end of the deal, and only trouble can follow.

The Communist Party knows it ignores the environment at its peril

There are some signs that the Party sees the new bargain emerging and accepts its terms. There have been a flurry of environmental measures announced, and lots of promises from politicians. Premier Li Keqiang called pollution "a blight on people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts" as he opened the annual session of the National People’s Congress last week.

This is meant to manage not just the environmental problems but the public frustration they're causing. Publicly acknowledging there is a problem relieves some pressure  and so, too, does allowing a little room for criticism online. That’s surely why censors initially allowed discussion of the film, so long as it wasn’t critical of the government. But anything that looks like it could be spilling into a source of instability, as the documentary apparently was, must be wiped from the internet.

Barbara A. Finamore, a China specialist at the National Resources Defense Council, pointed out that the ruckus over the film coincides with the Chinese government’s "two most important annual meetings: full sessions of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC) and the 12th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)."

"This documentary and its wildfire popularity may prove to be a watershed moment influencing China’s environmental policy," she added.

If the tremendous interest in the film shows anything, it’s that this issue is not going away. If the implicit bargain with the people does indeed change, then the party's own legitimacy could be in danger if it ignores this  and that is its greatest terror.