Newspaper article International New York Times

China Blocks Web Expose on Its Air Pollution

Newspaper article International New York Times

China Blocks Web Expose on Its Air Pollution

Article excerpt

The momentum over the viral video "Under the Dome" came to an abrupt halt as major Chinese video websites deleted it under orders from the Communist Party's central propaganda department.

"Under the Dome," a searing documentary about China's catastrophic air pollution, had hundreds of millions of views on Chinese websites within days of its release one week ago. The country's new environment minister compared it to "Silent Spring," the landmark 1962 book that energized the environmental movement in the United States. Domestic and foreign journalists clamored to interview the filmmaker, a famous former television reporter, though she remained silent.

Then on Friday afternoon, the momentum over the viral video came to an abrupt halt, as major Chinese video websites deleted it under orders from the Communist Party's central propaganda department.

The startling phenomenon of the video, the national debate it triggered and the official attempts to quash it reflect the deep political sensitivities in the struggle within the bureaucracy to reverse China's environmental degradation, among the worst in the world. The drama over the video has ignited speculation over which political groups were its supporters and which sought to kill it, and whether party leaders will tolerate the civic conversation and grass-roots activism that in other countries have been necessary to curbing rampant pollution.

"It's been spirited away by gremlins," said Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism and media studies in Beijing.

The video was made by Chai Jing, a former investigative reporter for China Central Television, with help from other former employees of the state network. It appears obvious that Ms. Chai had the cooperation of pro-environment officials in the party and government, according to interviews with state media employees and material in the documentary and on supporting websites. After the video's release, other officials, including some at state-owned enterprises that often bridle at stricter environmental regulations, came out strongly against the film. The battle lines reflected those in the broader conflict over the environment in China.

The 104-minute documentary, whose title is a reference to the grim smog that pervades daily life in many Chinese cities, had become the hottest topic of conversation among many people here. But by Friday evening, people in China who wanted to view it on the websites of major Internet companies like Youku and Tencent found only dead links.

The website of People's Daily, the official party newspaper, had initially promoted the video and posted an interview with Ms. Chai, but those had been deleted by Friday morning.

The censors' guillotine fell a day after the start of the annual session of the National People's Congress, the party-controlled legislature that is supposed to represent official candor and accountability.

In recent years, there has been fast-growing anxiety among middle- class Chinese over fatal, widespread pollution of the air, water and soil resulting from a lack of environmental regulations governing industries. Ms. Chai's self-financed documentary touched nerves in part because she voiced those concerns in a straightforward manner, from the perspective of an average citizen. …

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