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Review: Under the Dome (China, 2015)

We review Under the Dome, a seminal documentary on modern China's environmental crisis that some say is the country's An Inconvenient Truth or Silent Spring.

By , 7 Mar 15 20:08 UTC
(1224)  (31) 

Watch Under the Dome in its entirety on YouTube (with English subtitles).

As a native of Beijing who has regularly visited the city from 1994 to 2015, I have seen first hand the changes in air quality and smog in China’s capital city. Although Beijing’s air was never clean compared to the crisp oceanside air of the Silicon Valley, I can recall the air in Beijing getting progressively worse year after year — to the point where I have stopped visiting my relatives in the winter when the “Beijing fog” is at its worst. One summer, I took a train ride from Shanghai to Beijing — on the way, I passed by a number of smaller cities and villages that relied on coal-fired plants for heat and factory power; below is the view of a building not far from the train line.

While I am fortunate enough to be able to hop on a flight to San Francisco after mere weeks in China, for the hundreds of millions of Chinese people living in places like Tangshan and Shanxi, pollution is a daily blight on their lives and a very real threat to their health — Beijing’s smog has been compared to smoking a pack of cigarettes every dayUnder the Dome is a film by Chinese news anchor Chai Jing, who was inspired to make it after her daughter was born with a lung tumor — that’s right, a baby girl was born with the same affliction as life-long chainsmokers. And although the tumor ended up being benign, and although there are challenges to the claim that smog directly contributed to the tumor to begin with, there is indisputable evidence that the increasing PM 2.5 levels in China have led to a rapid rise in lung cancer, heart disease and a number of other afflictions new to China. In a format similar to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Chai Jing explores both the scientific background, personal implications, and broader social effects of China’s rapid industrialization and air pollution.

In many ways, Under the Dome can be considered as China’s answer to An Inconvenient Truth. However, where it succeeds and differs is that Chai Jing chooses to portray the personal effects of air pollution rather than the broad “problems of the world” that Al Gore focused on. While it may be difficult for most people to sympathize with polar bears stuck on ice caps, people sympathize a lot more with the effect of poor environmental conditions on their daily lives. Chai Jing brings up how during her childhood, she would open the windows on a spring day and smell the fresh, sweet air — today, she wakes up and checks the PM 2.5 index on her phone before donning a face mask previously reserved for the era when SARS and bird flu terrorized the country.

Chai Jing explores the various causes of air pollution to try and understand how today’s China looks like London of the 1860s — from coal-fired power plants and factories to the density of cars and lack of effective urban management. Anyone who has ever seen Beijing’s inner-city ring roads during rush hour would easily understand how thousands of cars sitting in traffic for hours to go distances often less than 5 km could generate one ton of smog within an hour. The further lack of enforcement on China’s strict environmental regulation leads to numerous fake environmental standards permits for trucks, and unclear executive authority between departments on whose responsibility it is to enforce regulations. Even further, the Chinese societal tendency to skirt the letter of the law rather than follow its spirit exacerbates the problem; Chai Jing compares the effects of parking meter price increases in London with the same in China, where individuals simply choose to park on the street — right next to, but outside of, the legal street-side parking spaces.

Under the Dome does not, and likely cannot, offer any solutions to the environmental problems facing China. However, the solutions are in reality quite evident — the issue lies more in often what is known as the “Chinese way” — as the owner of an unlicensed diesel shop tells some Environmental Protection Bureau inspectors, the government agencies have “obligation but not authority” to enforce the environmental regulations.

Chai Jing begins Under the Dome by interviewing a young girl and asking her, “have you ever seen the stars in the sky?” and “have you seen white clouds before?” The girl can only shake her head and answer “no” — while Al Gore may be going on about how the next generation may never see a polar bear in the wild, truthfully even most of us in this generation will not simply because most of us lack the means to visit the Arctic. However, it is shocking to see the next generation already claiming that clouds are in fact grey, and stars do not exist since they are hidden behind a layer of smog. The ancients looked to the skies, saw the stars and pondered about the motion of the heavens — as a result, we were given the gifts of mathematics, physics, and science. How many young Chinese children will never see those stars and ponder about the heavens? How many will look up to the sky through the windows in their air-filtered apartments and ask their parents, “mommy, why is the sky black?”

Under the Dome (Chinese: 柴静雾霾调查–穹顶之下)China. Directed by Chai Jing. First released February 2015. Running time 1 hr 43 mins. Narrated by Chai Jing.

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