Chai Jing, a former CCTV anchor (CCTV is the government-owned national broadcasting system), became an Internet sensation on February 28 after releasing her self-described documentary called Under the Dome. All in Chinese, it received 155 million hits in the first 24 hours and has been the focus of much Internet chatter and newspaper editorial ever since.
It’s commonly referred to as a Chinese sequel to Al Gore’s, The Inconvenient Truth, but it’s actually more like a 103-minute Ted Talk than a typical documentary. And like Al Gore, Ms. Chai has been pummeled by both sides; some suggesting that her presentation was not balanced, downplaying China’s need for economic growth, and others complaining that she did not go far enough.
Ms. Chai addresses three primary questions: 1. What is pollution? 2. What causes it? 3. What can we do about it? And she gives a human dimension to the problem by noting that it was the birth of her daughter that heightened her interest in the issue.
The causes and solutions, in the end, surprised few. Energy and construction are the primary causes of China’s now infamously poor air quality. China’s only abundant energy resource is coal, and besides being coal, which is normally not a clean energy source, it is notoriously poor quality coal. An energy scientist friend of mine familiar with China describes it as ‘high energy dirt’.
The low level of China’s gasoline and diesel standards also take a hit in Chai Jing’s expose but, again, that is not a surprise to scientists familiar with the situation. But, in fairness to her critics, there will be a cost to raising the quality of the gasoline and diesel refined in China and a massive expenditure of capital to realign China’s refining capacity. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be done but the cost factor is an inconvenient truth, if you will.
Of absolutely no surprise to anyone is her assertion that the biggest culprit behind China’s rapidly deteriorating air quality is weak government enforcement. China has plenty of environmental regulations on the books already. They just aren’t enforced – or at least enforced uniformly.
The biggest surprise of Ms. Chai’s documentary was her clear explanation of what pollution is and why it is bad for your health. Frankly, I have been stunned by the number of relatively well-educated Chinese who have watched the piece and declared, “I had no idea air pollution was so bad for my health. For me it was always just there. It obscures the sun but beyond that I didn’t think much about its impact on my health.”
Most Westerners, I suspect, will be shocked to read that and will immediately jump to the conclusion that this ignorance must be a function of government censorship. I believe, however, that this would be an over-simplification.
Certainly the government has not made the health impact of pollution a priority in the national education curriculum. But I think some lack of awareness is both a reflection of how focused the Chinese have been on improving their quality of life and the fact that they tend to view health issues through the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), not Western science. It’s not that pollution is considered healthy to the TCM way of thinking, it’s just not addressed in any direct fashion because it was not the issue it is today during the evolution of TCM.
China does have to tackle its environmental degradation or the country’s major cities will ultimately become uninhabitable. But many international cities (e.g. Los Angeles, Denver, London) faced similar challenges in the past and have successfully resolved them.
And I think it would be unfair not to recognize the ways in which the Chinese are, in fact, living, consciously or not, in an environmentally friendly way. They were already using reusable cloth shopping bags when I moved here eight years ago. Plastic bags are available, but you have to pay for them.
Everything is recycled. Everything. When a developer is getting ready to replace a building he will typically just knock it down and leave it for the recyclers to do the rest. By the time they are finished there is almost nothing that has to be hauled away to a landfill.
Public transportation in every major city is well developed and well utilized. I myself utilize the subway system whenever I travel around Beijing because it is convenient, cheap, safe, and clean.
And virtually all major streets have bicycle lanes that are physically divided from the vehicle traffic and cities like Beijing have installed bicycle rental stations throughout the city to make it convenient for visitors to bike their way around. And every subway station and grocery store offers an inexpensive and convenient area to store your bike in a controlled and secure environment.
Environmental friendliness often goes hand in hand with cheap. As I have noted before, whereas a Western developer would install high efficiency water heaters to supply warm water to the washrooms, the Chinese developer wouldn’t provide hot water at all.
And some eco-friendliness relates to the TMI lens and tradition. The Chinese consider it unhealthy to introduce chilled liquids to their bodies, so you will never find ice in China and most soft drinks and juices are served at room temperature. While air conditioning is becoming more common, the target temperature is inevitably set at a much higher level than in the West and most hotels turn it off in the evening, much to the chagrin of my American guests. And even the wealthiest Chinese seldom use automated clothes dryers, preferring to dry their clothes in the traditional fashion.
Imagine, by comparison, how much energy is used in the United States in the creation of ice, air conditioning – which is often excessive in public buildings – and the automated drying of clothes. These things alone must leave an enormous carbon footprint.
China is further handicapped by a lack of access to wood as a building material. All buildings, including homes, are made of concrete, the production of which is a major contributor to PM 2.5, one of the more harmful components of air pollution.
I honestly can’t say whether Ms. Chai’s documentary is adequately balanced or not. As a writer I know it is impossible to satisfy everyone.
I do believe, however, that she has done the country a great service simply by educating people to the hazards of pollution. Now aroused, I believe the citizenry will take it from here.
And I believe the government is and will remain responsive. Just last week, during the annual meeting of China’s parliament, Premier Li Keqiang reaffirmed the government’s commitment to cleaning up the environment, which rests, of course, in part, on weeding out corruption, which the current administration has done with undeniable vigor.
And while some in the government are undoubtedly spinning the fallout over Ms. Chai’s work, as every government does every day, she has decided to stay in China, and the government’s official China Daily newspaper ran a full-page article on the documentary, which I read and found to be well balanced indeed. Credit where credit is due.
The author’s newest literary novel is now available in paperback on Amazon worldwide. Click on the link below to take a look. It’s a very personal and thought-provoking tale.
Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.