Wednesday, March 11, 2015

穹顶之下 (Under the Dome) (2015)


Presented By: Chai Jing

Under the Dome is the recently banned Chinese documentary concerning air pollution in China, presented by former CCTV reporter Chai Jing. She managed to get it passed by the censors and it was viewed over 150 million times on Tencent within three days of its release. Some think the government decided to air it because it contains criticism against China National Petroleum Company whose officials are facing corruption charges. The overwhelming response to the documentary made them rethink the decision and a ban was imposed. It is available on Youtube with English subtitles and that is how I watched it.

The way it is presented can be compared to the Al Gore climate change documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth'. Most of it is her giving a lecture/presentation to an audience with several footage of her interviewing officials, finding out things on the ground and visiting developed world interspersed through it. Chinese talk really fast and it can be hard to keep up with the subtitles. It covers all aspects related to pollution like heavy dependence on coal as energy source, highly inefficient heavy industries, non-compliance by automobile manufacturers in terms of emission standards, ineffectiveness of MEP (Ministry of Environmental Protection) , effects of rapid urbanization and growing bubble in real estate. She also criticizes the monopolistic aspects of many of China's Energy related firms and proposes leaving things to the market with proper regulation as the solution. Obviously that will invite criticism from government and it did as they dismissed it as a Western influenced propaganda piece. 

China is now facing some of the challenges that the Western countries have already faced during their industrial development phase. London had its Great Smog of 1952 which made them enforce changes to avert disaster and the same thing happened in Los Angeles. Along with developing renewable energy sources China can look at Natural gas as an interim solution. But the incentives are not aligned for the firms to tap into China's natural gas reserves. This is same for India with the prices of natural gas controlled by the state. This low price don't give any incentive for the private sector to explore and exploit the reserves. The enthusiasm with which the coal blocks were auctioned off recently without much regard to environment was disconcerting as we seem to follow the path that China traveled. But there have been some rumors about a carbon tax being imposed on Coal, if implemented substantially will be welcomed. Several Indian cities are more polluted than the ones in China and a recent economist article states that 13 of the World's 20 most polluted cities are from India.

Chinese people had made an unspoken pact with its government where they will trade off their political freedom for rapid economic growth. Now they are facing the consequences of it and with China needing an economic re-balancing away from its investment driven model for growth, things can get really tricky for the state. Pollution is not something that they can hide from the citizens even though they are used to mislead them by stating that it is fog instead of smog. Same thing happens in India and US is going to launch its Air Now office in Delhi which would publicize the pollution levels. That should make it interesting as many do suspect that the actual levels are indeed misrepresented as of now. I do expect the government to cry about that claiming it to be another foreign plan to defame India.

Overall the documentary is a good watch with information presented in a very accessible manner. I do wonder about the authenticity of some of the data and research since she is not someone from scientific community and the way things are in China, the government can easily discredit the information. She used her child's operation to remove a tumour immediately after birth as a hook for audience to engage with the film when in fact they really don't need an extra incentive to be concerned with the state of things. Hopefully the documentary will have the impact Al Gore's documentary had in terms of capturing the popular imagination.

PS: This just came up after I posted the review. Should I just laugh or cry...

Rating: 3.5/5