a piece on the hit enviormental documentary Under the Dome

Power struggle in the name of pollution fight

A documentary film has effectively stolen the show from China’s “two sessions” being held in Beijing.

Chai Jing (柴靜), a former anchor at state broadcaster CCTV, singlehandedly set air pollution as the talk of the nation through her 103-minute production Under the Dome (穹頂之下), which has reportedly got over 100 million hits on video hosting platforms across the mainland.

The film, although offering nothing new in content and presented in a TED-like manner, has diverted the limelight from the “two sessions”, an annual political ritual that Communist Party mouthpieces are directed to promote with much fanfare.

The huge success has prompted the ruling party to order editors and censors nationwide to purge official publications and forums of any reference to the film.

The film has become such a hit because it zeroes in on two prominent groups perceived to have substantial vested interests — the so-called “petroleum clique”, comprising officials from the northeastern provinces with Zhou Yongkang (周永康) and Bo Xilai (薄熙來) as its bigwigs, and the “coal clique”, composed mainly of family members of former premier Li Peng (李鵬) whose son Li Xiaopeng (李小鵬) is now governor of the coal-rich Shanxi province. It is believed that the two cliques have a common backer: former party boss and president Jiang Zemin.

China’s 1.3 billion people are all victims of pollution and other environmental woes, one of the major crises facing the government.

Chai’s film came out at a sensitive time, one day after Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian (周生賢) — who was slack in his job and hounded by rumors of corruption — was transferred to a nominal position in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Princelings of communist officials in the oil and coal sectors needed someone from their ranks to head the environmental watchdog and that was how Zhou — who fawned on his subordinate, Jiang’s sister Jiang Zehui (江澤慧), when working at the State Forestry Administration — got promoted to the nation’s top environmental post.

Tsinghua University president Chen Jining (陳吉寧), who has become Zhou’s successor, praised Chai’s efforts to raise the public awareness about air pollution and pledged to step up measures to ease the problem. Before that, rarely could ordinary people’s concerns over environmental issues get positive feedback from a senior communist cadre.

With Chen’s endorsement, the film got into more headlines nationwide — until Beijing issued its gag order.

Some say that Chai herself has profound connections in high places and her motive is doubtful. It has been asked: If the film was shot solely by her team, how come she was able to approach and interview so many top environmental experts and even officials, some of whom were exceptionally outspoken about the excesses of state-owned oil and coal firms?

Thus it is alleged that Chai is an ally of President Xi Jinping who wants to find fault with the two powerful cliques in a renewed political struggle to consolidate his position; environmental issues offer a perfect excuse to start the ball rolling.

The ban from the party’s publicity department, controlled by Jiang and Li, comes as a proof of that conjecture.

Xi is indeed the second generation “paramount leader” of the Communist Party as he, a representative of the so-called “second-generation reds”, is the son of one of the revolutionaries who founded Communist China. The Hu Jintao administration was merely a transitional arrangement just like Yen Chia-kan who briefly served as Taiwan’s president before Chiang Kai-shek passed the “throne” to his son Chiang Ching-kuo.

Jiang, on the other hand, was an interval in the process and an obstacle when the second-generation reds are set to inherit power and leadership from their fathers. Jiang, Li and their lackeys have formed a syndicate, taking up virtually all the lucrative posts in key sectors and monopolizing state-owned enterprises.

Those who have ascended to power after Xi took office in 2012 covet those posts, and Chai’s film may indeed facilitate the process. Aside from the ongoing anti-graft drive, the fight against pollution offers a means for them to deploy.

But the film may have just become a wake-up call to the mainland’s long-missing civic awareness. Any push from independent-thinking citizens is deemed a threat to the party, especially when hundreds of millions of people are drawn to engage attentively in a lecture about people’s rights, even if it is about non-political issues.

No one in the history of the party could ever do that like Chai, so it is intolerable to an authoritarian regime.

The film compares China’s current air pollution problems to London’s Great Smog in December 1952 which claimed 6,000 lives according to official records. But when China’s economic output per square kilometer reaches the level of London’s in the 1950s, it’s likely that its people will inhale even filthier air in the future.

“Conflict of interests” is non-existent in Beijing’s dictionary; people with close ties with PetroChina or Sinopec may be tapped to draft pollution control standards. It’s like posts in the police watchdog Independent Police Complaints Council being taken up by police officers. But Beijing’s philosophy is that the Communist Party can discipline itself.

It’s just like the dilemma of the anti-corruption initiatives. Since there is no separation of powers to ensure an independent judiciary, the party leader has powers above the law. It’s plain that without a clear directive from the top, anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan (王岐山) wouldn’t have dared to intensify the campaign, from crushing the “big tiger” network to swatting brigades of “flies”.

In economics, pollution is the result of a malfunctioning market in which people who pollute pocket the savings and leave the costs for others to pay.

Government intervention is needed to solve the problem. On the surface, the party should have been more effective given its unlimited authority. But with its habit of clinging to supreme powers and innate gluttony for economic advantage, there’s no solution whatsoever.

Xi and Wang may nail down all the big tigers, but ten years on, who knows they won’t become big tigers themselves to be netted by the party’s new leadership?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 5.

Translation by Frank Chen

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