The News Lens
Released just a few days before the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in 2015, the documentary “Under the Dome” sparked nationwide attention and was censored days later. The filmmaker, Chai Jing (柴靜), has had substantial influence as an investigative journalist through a career path that includes close ties with state-run CCTV.
Who is Chai Jing?
Chai is a well-known investigative journalist in China and gained worldwide recognition recently after she was nominated as one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2015, primarily for her documentary. Known for her precise questioning and often relatable and approachable face-to-face interviewing, Chai established her reputation as a trustworthy investigative journalist through different TV programs on CCTV, including News Probe, One on One and Insight. All the programs share similarities in that they are meant to provide insights on public issues through interviews and inside stories.
Launched in 1996, News Probe, for example, with its release in 1996, seeks to inform the public about social issues in China with a sensible and balanced approach, according to CCTV. Zhao (2000) suggests that TV programs such as News Probe represent a landmark in watchdog journalism in China through more in-depth journalism. However, self-censorship is still a norm in News Probe’s internal practices and reflects the interests of the government to a certain extent (Pan, 2005).
How Chai benefited from her experience with CCTV?
The nature of Chai’s experience in investigative journalism under CCTV gives her the seemingly contradictory values to explore in-depth stories in China while avoiding stories that can dismay the central government at the same time. Though news reports encounter challengers as they are under constant supervision, Chai has been able to utilize her resources and experiences in central news programs, which were further seen in the making of “Under the Dome.” As in her interview with People’s Daily after the release of the documentary, when seeking to interview government officials, “nobody declined to speak with me. When they answer questions, they are outspoken and straightforward” (China Digital Times, 2015). Her well-established reputation not only gives her a chance to interview officials and experts, but also allows her to receive many resources in terms of assistance in production as well as technical support.
The ‘Under the Dome’ phenomenon
Released in February 2015, “Under the Dome” a documentary about the worsening air pollution in China. The documentary opens with journalist Chai’s own experience in Beijing and takes the audience on a journey to explore the reasons behind poor air quality, the market-driven corporations and ineffective government regulations that exacerbate the problem. The film, which combines footage and interviews, went viral on the Internet and reached 150 million views three days into its release. By the time the government censored the video and comments regarding the film, it has already been viewed more than 300 million times.
In order to elaborate on the “Under the Dome” phenomenon and the reactions from the public and state after its release, it is necessary to explore its relation to the public, the state and market forces, and how it speaks to the state of investigative journalism in China — in other words, to draw a connection between environmental journalism and the bigger issue of economic reforms and influence in the media.
How it rose to popularity
“Under the Dome” opens with narration by Chai about her daughter’s illness, which compelled her to declare “war on pollution.” It illustrates her ability to appeal to the audience using emotion. Another important element that no doubt contributed to its speeding popularity is the use of the Internet as a platform (Edwards, 2015). It reached over 300 million viewers in only a few days on major commercial Chinese video hosting sites. Choosing the Internet was a double-edged sword, giving the film instant exposure but allowing public debate on social media platforms about Chai’s initiative and the validity of her investigation, which later on led to the censorship of all relevant discussions in the social and public sphere.
Several factors pertaining to party-state relations led to censorship of the film. When the film was first released, the People’s Daily, a state affiliated news outlet, complimented and compared it to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Officials from the Ministry of Environmental Protection also recognized the film’s attempt to address pollution issues. However, three days before National People’s Congress, the film and all relevant discussions were completely censored by the government.
Ambiguity of media control
The seemingly contradictory decision by the government shows the ambiguity and emergence of opposite values due to looser constraint of media after economic reforms. After 1997, marketization and capitalism influenced media like other aspects of society. The commercialization of Chinese media meant it had become market-driven, which led to more freedom in terms of news content (Kivlehan-Wise, 2010). Media furthermore needed market circulation to compensate for the loss of government funding. Pan (2005) refers to the phenomenon as “dual personalities,” with the Chinese government shifting from total control to a more market-based policy.
Such transformations nevertheless gave rise to tensions. Zhao (2000) indicates that the gains made in terms of freedom of investigative journalism still occurred under the framework of the party-state. The Guardian (Branigan, 2015) argued that the contradictory behavior in deciding to censor “Under the Dome” was a way of showing that the while the government wants certain issues to be addressed and to raise public awareness, it will not tolerate the debate becoming too heated and beyond control.
Dilemmas in investigative journalism
The film reveals the incapability and ineffectiveness of government institutions such as the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It also highlights the under-the-surface defects or market-driven state corporations such as Sinopec and PetroChina, which have contributed to the worsening pollution problem. Although it did not spark much controversy in the beginning, as it became a sensation on the Internet the film triggered debate and finger pointing at the government, which eventually triggered censorship mechanisms. Nevertheless, environmental journalism that addresses such issues has faced similar situations following economic reforms and the greater freedoms in expressing environmental concerns. Environmental journalists often cooperated with NGOs to report on issues that were neglected by local governments and the public. However, certain issues can still be off-limits, especially when they result in pressure on the central or local governments. Environmental journalism therefore faces a dilemma, as reporting can either be used to promote government efforts on environmental issues or expose journalists to dangers when they inform the public of government inaction (Weist, 2001).
With “Under the Dome,” Chai touches on a similar predicament in her opening remarks. The film is about revealing the dreadful smog pollution in China, and although it reveals government incapacity, Chai cleverly states that it was a “personal cause” that drove her to produce the film. By thus driving the focus away from the suggestion that high-level government agencies and state-owned corporations were solely to blame, she made it easier for the government to allow the film to be released — at least initially.
Greater media freedom in China?
Reflecting on the current situation of media in China, it can be summed up with Chai’s closing remarks in the film. “I don’t want to wait. I want to stand up and do a little something.” (China Digital Times, 2015) Even though the Chinese government still holds the power to regulate and censor news and media content, the Chinese press has embraced the greater freedoms it has been given and is eager to speak out.
Branigan, T. (2015) Beijing Authorities Sanguine as Pollution Documentary Takes China by Storm. The Guardian.
China Digital Times (2015) Translation: People’s Daily Interview with Chai Jing.
Edwards, D. (2015) 300 million clicks: Under the Dome and the Chinese Documentary Context.
Kivlehan-Wise, M. (2010). “China’s New Media Milieu: Commercialization, Continuity, and Reform Chaos Under Heaven: Continuity and Change in the Chinese Media System.”
Pan, Z. (2005). “Media change through bounded innovations: journalism in China’s media reforms.” Journalism and Democracy in Asia. New York: Routledge, 96-107.
Wiest, N. C. (2001). Green voices in greater China: Harmony and dissonance. In Hong Kong Conference Report: Environmental Journalism in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Wilson Center.
Yuezhi, Z. (2000). Watchdogs on party leashes? Contexts and implications of investigative journalism in post-Deng China. Journalism Studies, 1(4), 577-597.