Now You See It; Now You Don’t

A week and a half ago as a dress and a couple of llamas were melting the Internet in the US, Chinese netizens were gripped by an online documentary. The film, titled Under the Dome, is a hard-hitting look at the effects of pollution in China. It was posted on February 28, and within 48 hours had been viewed by 100 million people. Yes, you read that right, ONE HUNDRED MILLION!

By March 6, that number had reached 200 million!

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Here’s how the BBC describes the film:

Renowned investigative journalist Chai Jing has been widely praised for using her own money – more than 1 million RMB ($159,000: £103,422) – to fund the film, called Under the Dome. She first started the documentary when her infant daughter developed a benign tumour in the womb, which Ms. Chai blames on air pollution.

Standing in front of an audience in a simple white shirt and jeans, Ms. Chai speaks plainly throughout the 103-minute video, which features a year-long investigation of China’s noxious pollution problem.

At times, the documentary is deeply personal. Near the start of the documentary, Ms. Chai interviews a six-year-old living in the coal-mining province of Shanxi, one of the most polluted places on earth.

“Have you ever seen stars?” Ms. Chai asks. “No,” replies the girl.

“Have you ever seen a blue sky?” “I have seen a sky that’s a little bit blue,” the girl tells her.

“But have you ever seen white clouds?” “No,” the girl sighs.

Given the fact that the documentary is quite critical of the government’s lack of attention to the problem, many were surprised by the fact that it was online at all, especially at such a sensitive time leading up to the National People’s Congress. Perhaps that’s one reason it went viral so fast – people knew deep down that the government censors would eventually step in; everyone was trying to see it (and perhaps download it) before it was taken down.

Well, that finally happened on March 6. With the authorities apparantly feeling that 200 million viewers were a significantly greater threat to social stability than 100 million, the order went out for its removal from the Internet. Social media sites were told to disable sharing of the video and by Friday night it was gone from China’s major video sites, Youku and Tudou. Now you see it; now you don’t!

Fortunately, however, the video is available on YouTube, and English subtitles have been added. You can watch it in its entirety here (if you dare).

For an excellent discussion on the significance of this documentary and what it might mean for China’s future efforts at tackling the problem of air pollution, I highly recommend checking out a discussion piece at China File: Why Has This Environmental Documentary Gone Viral in China?:

In a country where media is tightly controlled, it is surprising, if not unprecedented, to see the unimpeded release of a self-funded investigative documentary about one of the most sensitive topics challenging China’s growth, especially when the film is critical of more than a few government agencies and is circulating so widely just ahead of the annual convening of China’s main legislative body. Following below are contributor reactions to what has been described at China’s “Inconvenient Truth.”

You can read it all here.

Photo: Upworthy