Beyond ‘Under the Dome’ – What’s not on Weibo
This interview with environmental expert Fishjourner was conducted and condensed by Manya Koetse in Beijing in March 2015.
Environmental issues have been the talk of Beijing for the past month. As air quality levels reached 400 again, the pollution-themed documentary “Under the Dome” (“穹顶之下”) by former CCTV reporter Chai Jing (柴静) became a trending topic on China’s social media platforms and media at large. On Sina Weibo alone, there were 280 million posts related to the topic.
As the documentary went viral, the Chinese government was quick to block it from China’s video platforms. State Council Premier Li Keqiang addressed the theme of the documentary on March 15, saying that the right execution of environmental laws is a key issue for Chinese leaders in the year to come: China is “declaring war” on pollution. As both the people and the government are seemingly more concerned about the future of China’s environment, some say this is the beginning of a national awakening on the dangers of pollution.
Australian born Fishjourner (pseudonym) is an expert on China’s environment. As an environmental planner who has been living and working in Beijing for over eight years, he says: “It’s a confusing time for China in terms of environmental issues; people care about them, but their concern only goes as far as their own backyard.” What’s on Weibo sat down with Fishjourner to discuss the issues beyond Under the Dome and how what is buzzing online looks like in the reality of China today.
UNDER THE DOME
“This documentary gave people freedom to comment- so they jumped at it.”
Under the Dome is a TED-talk-like documentary in which Chai Jing explains China’s environmental problems through the use of graphs, photos and the personal stories of people affected by pollution – including her own daughter. “The documentary did not even survive one week on China’s internet,” Fishjourner says: “The video notably came out by the end of February on Renminwang‘s video site, the website of the PRC-owned People’s Daily. Although initially it had at least in-principle backing of the government, the documentary quickly got so much attention that they had it removed after three days.” Under the Dome received over one hundred million views on Chinese video sites such as Youku or Tencent after February 28. The perhaps unexpected interest in the documentary makes it seem like Chinese people are increasingly more aware about environmental issues and, specifically, pollution. “The Chinese average Joe is indeed getting more concerned about these issues,” Fishjourner says: “But the online hype of the video also relates to other issues. When you are in a society where you are not free to express your opinion on many subjects, and then are somehow given freedom to do so, people are going to jump on it. This is what happened. The floodgates were opened, so to speak.” Within three weeks, Chai’s documentary went from being a national sensation to being blocked to its mention in Li Keqiang’s speech on the environment and polluting companies. Although (social) media was buzzing, the buzz was not necessarily noticeable on the streets in China: “The documentary went down, the freedom to comment was over, and people continued to live their lives again. It is out of their control. It has not instigated a political movement, and is not necessarily all about environmental issues,” Fishjourner says.
DEALING WITH POLLUTION IN CHINA
“Reactions to pollution can be quite extreme.”
Smoggy air, car exhaust, soil pollution, grimy canals – pollution is noticeable in everyday life in Beijing and many other cities in China. People wearing face masks have become an ordinary urban phenomenon. “There are some who will even wear them when it is a nice day with blue skies,” Fishjourner says. The face masks are just one example of how people deal with pollution on a daily basis: “Pregnant women will wear anti-radiation gowns to protect their babies. Within people’s homes and offices, air purifiers are all the rage.” As Fishjourner explains how indoor air quality is an important issue for many Chinese, he also says that some people react to pollution in extreme ways: “The effect of smog on the body is cumulative. The more you breathe, the more pollutants you take into your body. It will indeed create acute health effects when the Air Quality Index reaches 500, but you won’t get cancer tomorrow.”
In Under the Dome, Chai Jing alluded to her daughter’s illness being smog-related. In doing so, she struck a cord with Chinese audiences – protecting one’s health and that of the family is important in people’s attitude towards pollution: “A friend of mine paid high fees to get his daughter into a local kindergarten. When they painted the walls there, he paid two months of fees without letting her attend- he wanted the smell of paint to leave the air before he would let her go back again.” According to Fishjourner, the concern for air quality relates to an overall distrust with Chinese products and companies: “Coming from Australia or America, we often blindly assume or trust that it is okay if we smell paint or factory fumes and that it won’t actually hurt us. But in China, people don’t know what they’re getting. The milk scandal has proved that even baby milk powder cannot be trusted. This has made people more paranoid on other issues too. When they smell strong paint, it could be potentially harmful. Where did it come from? What’s the brand? Who fabricated it? Are all the ingredients legal and safe? Asking questions about air quality and pollution is not political – it is a way to keep yourself and your family healthy.”
NOT IN MY BACKYARD
“Chinese are unhappy about where they are – unhappy in a good way.”
Although concerns with pollution are visible in everyday life in China, the average person does not really about the environment, according to Fishjourner: “Ask any taxi driver what he cares for more: China’s pollution problem or getting the next customer through Weixin.” Improving individual lives in real ways is a top priority, and money is an important part of it: “There is this general belief that life will be better by generating more cash, and that things will keep improving. Many Chinese are actually unhappy about where they are – they are unhappy in a good way. They are prepared to do anything to change their reality.” Although the general attitude on setting up businesses and generating cash has helped China’s economy to grow, there is a big downside to it for the environment: “While businesses are all about making money, the environmental side is often ignored. The fact that improving environmental issues is a key part of sustaining China’s prosperity, yet this is not readily incorporated in the concept of making progress.”
“For many Chinese, what is in their control is something they are paranoid about, and what they cannot control is something they don’t care about.”
According to Fishjourner, common self-awareness on the environment is crucial: “People will personalize environmental issues in terms of protecting themselves or their kids from air pollution or other risks, but they have not yet started to internalize them. You can wear a face mask to work, but if you still throw out your garbage on the street, waste water on hour-long showers and don’t adhere to environmental guidelines in business, it does not change anything in the long run.” Fishjourner emphasizes that China can be a messy country where everything that is ‘outside’ one’s own circle is ignored: “Just compare any stairwell to the apartments that it leads to and you will know what I mean.” Fishjourner goes on to say: “This also has to do with the government and political involvement. People have learnt to cope with the fact that they cannot influence political or national issues. It comes down to this; what is in their control is something they are paranoid about, and what they cannot control is something they don’t care about. Environmental issues therefore only matter to people when they happen in their own backyard – the rest is unfortunate, but irrelevant.”
BEYOND SAVING THE PANDA
“Environmental protection in China is a very cruel balancing act.”
There is still a long road ahead for improving environmental issues in China. “The government can express its concerns for the environment, but the bosses of local factories will not care because they have not internalized these concerns.” Fishjourner says: “Life becomes unsustainable in this way.” Little things eventually will determine the bigger decision-making: “First comes increasing levels of self-awareness on being part of improving the environment by saving on water, how you use your car, how much plastic you use, etc. This kind of self-awareness is almost non-existent in China.” Although the government has shown willingness to raise awareness on these issues with numerous public service announcements, it is important that it comes from both sides, says Fishjourner: “If you want to make people understand that it is all coming down to you and me, the government has to set the right example by balancing economic development and basic environmental resources. This is much more basic than saving the panda, yet nowhere as cute; it is about healthy food for everybody, safe water, clean air.” Fishjourner admits that the tasks at hand are challenging. “Virtually everybody in China has a desire to earn more cash, get a better house and have a car – but if this is going to happen for everybody, it will only increase the strain on the environment. How can this be balanced? It is a very cruel balancing act, because Beijing’s desire to develop so quickly also means it is more likely to cut corners to make sure basic human needs are still met.”
“The environmental situation in China is entirely unforgiving, from population density to the sheer number of cars and vast industrial operations. China is in a much more challenging position than other countries because of both the size and volume of its endeavours: if one poor choice is made, consequences could be catastrophic. The magnitude of every decision is unfathomable: if you get things wrong, you may have compromised everything.”
For Fishjourner, China’s environment is the reason to be there: “Every day, I am excited to be here. I could be in Australia with its blue skies and pristine beaches. Although I hate waking up to a smoggy Beijing day where the air quality has reached another zenith, the fact that environmental issues are so tangible makes it more challenging and relevant for me to work here.” Despite it all, Fishjourner does not feel that he is on a mission to save China’s environment. “I am not a dreamer. I know that everything we do has an environmental impact, and I want to eat what I want to eat, take my showers, go shopping and use my computer. With that said, I still would like to influence this country for the better. And in today’s China, just doing the little things can be a big cause.”
– by Manya Koetse
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[box type=”bio”] About the Author: Manya Koetse is the editor of What’s on Weibo. She’s a Sinologist who splits her time between the Netherlands and China. She earned her bachelor’s degrees in Literary Studies, Japanese & China Studies and completed her MPhil in Asian Studies. Contact: email@example.com, or follow on Twitter.[/box]
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