Hundreds of millions of people in China have watched this 103-minute-long video just in the past week. There's never been anything close to its success in the English-language Internet world. Everyone in the China-policy community is aware of it and discussing it. I'm mentioning it here for several reasons.
First, it's just now available in a version with English subtitles for the whole length. The crowd-sourced translation effort is its own fascinating tale—you can see the crowd-sourcing page, mainly in Chinese, here—but for the moment the point is that English speakers can follow the whole thing, below.
Beyond that, this documentary, an expose of China's profound pollution problems by prominent journalist Chai Jing, has the potential to be one of those creations that serves as a before-and-after marker in a society's development. For America, before-and-after Uncle Tom's Cabin or How the Other Half Lives or The Feminine Mystique or Silent Spring. For France, before-and-after J'accuse. For China, potentially, before-and-after Chai Jing's 穹顶之下, Under the Dome.
Sustainability it all forms is the greatest threat to China's own continued growth, and the greatest challenge China's emergence presents to the world. That's according to me (and here), but if you look at this video, or consider Alan Taylor's stunning series of photos on our site yesterday (and two years ago), you'll see that it's not some oddball conceit. Here, for instance, is Alan's comparison of the exact same view in Beijing on a clear day and a smoggy one in the past few weeks.
I stress the potential effect of Under the Dome because how the Chinese government will continue to treat it is of enormous importance, and is in real-time flux. Through the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government still seemed to be in denial about the country's pollution problems. The opaque skies that persisted until the very day of the opening ceremony were described in the government-controlled press as "mist." But within two or three years, the problems had become so undeniable that the government repositioned itself as the champion of public health and a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable China. Thus its allowing this documentary to be seen at all.
How will it react, now that this documentary has become the most widely viewed "serious" program in the nation's history? You can see a fascinating back-and-forth about the implications from a range of China experts here, on ChinaFile. If you're interested in the politics of environmental protection, or in China, or in both, I cannot recommend this exchange highly enough. Adam Minter of Bloomberg, my onetime comrade in Shanghai who now lives in my other former home of Kuala Lumpur, makes a positive case about China's ability to wrestle with its problems. Michael Zhao, also in ChinaFile, argues that the air-quality disaster has reached a tipping point at which clean-up can no longer be deferred.
Here's one other implication. Spend a minute or two looking at the passage in the video starting at around time 18:00, when Chai Jing talks about how her own awareness of pollution problems emerged. Or the part just after that, when she explains why the desperately poor China of the 1960s and 1970s welcomed every new smokestack. Or in most concentrated form just the passage from time 21:08 to 22:20. Or the passage an hour later, starting around around 01:20:00, when Chai Jing interviews British coal miners about their country's shift away from coal.
Watch any of these and then join me in wondering about this: Modern China is full of the kind of people you see in this video—the ones who researched and produced this program, the ones listening in the audience, the ones who have so avidly sought it out online. How can the leaders of a country such as this, full of hundreds of millions of people eager for information about their futures, imagine that they will survive or their people will prosper if the current effort to wall China off from the world's information flow goes on?