The Political Implications of “Under the Dome” in China


NANJING — The recent government-sanctioned, then government-censored, documentary on the pollution epidemic in China entitled “Under the Dome” (“Qióng Dǐng Zhī Xià”) has shaken the unspoken agreement that the Chinese government and population have had since the end of the 1980s: if economic development and enhanced prosperity can be guaranteed under the Communist Party’s rule, then the people are obligated to abstain from publicly criticizing the Party’s rule. This unspoken understanding has been tested since the late February release of “Under the Dome,” which subsequently went viral, with 200 million people (roughly a third of China’s internet-using population) viewing it within five days before it was suddenly banned.


The public response to “Under the Dome” and subsequent government action represent a test for Chinese political power. The ascent of China upon the world stage and China’s ever-growing economic prowess make it necessary to not only create and maintain political legitimacy for the China model, but also create the need to demonstrate to both the domestic population and the world at large that the model not only works but is ideal. This involves experimentation with give and take when it comes to issues of speech and criticism.

The investigative film was produced by former CCTV journalist Chai Jing, who worked with the state-owned and operated media giant for twelve years (2001-2013). The film was made with the blessing of the government. After many years of ducking the pollution problem, the Chinese government has finally started to give a little by publicly recognizing the issue and vowing to take action. The timing of the film’s release coincided with the start of the 12th National People’s Congress and 12th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meetings with the intended effect of demonstrating the government’s seriousness in confronting the problem on two fronts: first by making it a key issue of the central government; second, and most telling, by making it an issue for public discussion and therefore opening the door to criticism. The degree of openness regarding this issue is unprecedented in Chinese politics and represents experimentation with public debate in the interest of political legitimacy.

The issue of pollution has risen to near the top of the domestic agenda, dubbed “a blight on the country” by Premier Li Keqiang. Not only is public discussion of government shortcomings unheard of in China, this willingness on the part of government officials to highlight the shortcomings of their own policies is unprecedented. That is what makes “Under the Dome” so historically significant; it intentionally shines the spotlight on the flaws of government policy with the intended effect of prompting action. This has rarely happened in the 66 years of the PRC.

The film is hard-hitting. Chai took one year to research, film, produce, and release “Under the Dome.” Chai’s daughter was born with a benign brain tumor, a condition she publicly attributes to environmental conditions. She put on camera companies and factories that burn illegal amounts of coal and other fossil fuels while pinning the blame on lax government oversight and an almost consequence-free legal environment. This demonstrates that not only has the government not been active enough in combating pollution, but is the culprit. Chai linked economic, legal, and personal factors to succinctly demonstrate the flaws of government policy and the danger pollution poses to society, particularly to children. This type of investigative journalism comes with very high risk in China.

Displaying the push-and-pull factional strife taking place within the central government, Chen Jining, China’s new environment minister, has publicly thanked Chai for her efforts in making the film, commending her for spending over $150,000 of personal funds and for driving the reality home for the country to see. Other government agencies have condemned the film to the effect of its public censorship. While agreeing with the film’s message and censoring it simultaneously, President Xi Jinping has vowed to punish those who damage the environment with “an iron fist” and with “no exceptions,” though the contradiction of sponsoring the wildly popular film’s message while making its viewing illegal is not lost on the population. This demonstrates that China is not quite ready for dialogue between the population and its government, though it affords this notion precedent and space to develop in the future.

Since the beginning of China’s reform and opening program, which brought Chinese society out of the poverty of Maoism, the government has promised to make the country rich in exchange for domestic stability and public loyalty. This effort has been a smashing success but at the expense of the environment. Now that China has emerged as the world’s number two economy, the demand for higher living standards for a growing middle class has eclipsed the need to inject capital into society. Emigration of wealthy Chinese to other countries is spurred largely by environmental problems. The inaction of government on pollution policy is at the peril of the government’s legitimacy and represents a sociopolitical crisis on the horizon.

With poverty significantly lessened in big cities, calls are being made for improved living conditions, clean air, and a safe environment for children to grow up in. This is an issue on which the government has not yet been tested: public debate and critique among an educated and increasingly wealthy middle-class population, whose counterparts in other nations represent the most active demographic in seeking grievances with government entities. “Under the Dome” has brought these issues to life and may yet represent a watershed moment in the relationship between the Chinese state and its people.

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