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March 3rd, 2015:

I don’t make predictions

So I won’t speculate on the outcome of this interesting social occurrence. I will only say that it is worth paying attention to it, and watching what happens next.

A Chinese journalist named Chai Jing recently produced a documentary about the air pollution problem in China, and released it online. It’s been viewed by over 10 million people in just the first few days that it was released. You can find it on YouTube and other places. It’s called “Under the Dome” 穹顶之下. There are a few versions with English subtitles. If you look around, you should be able to find one.

Several aspects of this story make it interesting . First, because Chai is very well respected in China, and because the angle of her documentary is personal, the documentary resonates with the Chinese people. Second, the video is about a problem that no one in China denies: the serious air pollution problem in China. Finally, the video seems to be a personal investigation, independent of the official version of the story.

My sense is that the Chinese government is very sensitive about keeping control. They seem to be nervous about any force that is beyond their ability to steer, influence, and stifle, if necessary. They are very careful to shape public opinion, including opinions about air pollution. However, this video doesn’t seem to attack the government or its policies: it simply states the facts of the problem, and lets viewers draw their own conclusions. It also begs uncomfortable questions about government policies and the cost of development. By focusing on the human cost of living in a polluted environment, this video poses a soft-power challenge to the government’s heavy-handed approach. What will happen as a result of this new video? How will the government react? Will the public start demanding change? I don’t know, and I’m not going to speculate or predict. But I will watch the video and follow the conversation, such as the government allows it.

In the meantime, when the pollution level is high, I wear my special filter masks. Indoors, I have great air filters that the Consulate provides, and they keep my living and working environment safe. My exposure to the bad pollution is minimal. Because my government recognizes the hazard of air pollution, I have the luxury of breathing unpolluted air. But I live in a bubble (almost literally). The 1.3 billion Chinese people don’t have the luxury of breathing filtered air.

A few months ago, I had a heart-breaking short conversation with one of the Consulate’s Locally-Engaged Staff members. We were leaving the office at the end of the work day. I was leaving the filtered air of the office, to go to the filtered air in my apartment. She was leaving the filtered air of the office, to go home and breathe the unfiltered air in her house. I asked her what she does when the pollution level is high. She looked a little sad, sighed, and said wistfully: “ignore it.”

Because what else can you do when your environment is toxic, and you can’t escape it?

They say that a human being can live 30 days without food, 3 days without water, and 30 seconds without oxygen. When the air quality is terrible, you can’t simply not breathe. I can put on my mask when I travel between the filtered air of the office and the filtered air of my apartment. The local people breathe this pollution 24/7.

I’m not surprised that Chai has started talking openly about the problem. Someone was bound to start some time. But, how the government reacts to the video will show a lot about how the government chooses to respond to soft-power challenges.