China’s widely-watched pollution documentary scoops major award

Chai Jing's influential documentary 'Under the Dome' shakes off online criticism to scoop prestigious award
Chai Jing, the former CCTV anchor and now independent investigative reporter, won an award from the the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE) last week for her popular documentary on air pollution in China, Under the Dome.
But instead of making her first major public appearance since the documentary was censored in early March, Chai accepted the award through a friend who attended the ceremony, held on June 5 for World Environment Day.
Speaking at the ceremony SEE chairman Wu Jinglian acknowledged the limited but highly critical response to the film, something he says reflects the Chinese public’s overall struggle to form consensus on environmentalism.

Rather than discussing Chai’s proposed solutions to dealing with smog, Wu said, people focussed on Chai herself.

“That’s obviously not a good outcome,” he said.

Wu, also a prominent economist in China, was on stage to present China’s first environmental protection award founded by a civil society group, an award bestowed every two years. SEE was founded in 2004 by a group of environmentally-minded Chinese entrepreneurs and now has more than 400 members.

When Under the Dome was released in February, public opinion quickly split into two camps — those inspired by the documentary, and those fiercely critical of it and its director.


A week later, and after it had garnered hundreds of millions of hits, the documentary was suddenly removed from China-based video and microblog websites, a decision so far unexplained by the authorities.

Some suspect that criticism has been orchestrated by entrenched interests in heavy-polluting industries such as oil-refining and power generation, but much of the backlash stems from speculation Chai holds US citizenship, prompting nationalistic accusations of foreign funding of what some saw as criticism of government policy.

An interview with Chai Jing on the state-run People’s Daily website was also deleted, an indication of the central government’s intent to control public discourse on Chai’s documentary.

Following the censorship of the documentary, some officials tried to distance themselves from previous interviews granted to Chai, saying they did not support the film or approve of the journalist’s views.

Yet the day after Under the Dome was released, the new Minister for Environmental Protection, then his second day on the job, was quoted widely in media expressing gratitude and admiration for Chai’s work.

Unanimous choice

For SEE, the widely watched documentary was a unanimous choice for the award.

In a statement, SEE described Chai and her team as having used an independent and fact-based investigation to explain the impact of China’s pollution crisis on human health and the environment.

Despite the highly detailed fact-based content in the documentary and deft use of official data to illustrate the huge scale of pollution in China, Wu said controversy surrounding Chai’s documentary shows there is little chance of consensus.

China has achieved economic growth and development through highly-intensive use of resources, a model that inevitably wreaks huge environmental damage, Wu added.