By Chang Ping, published: March 4, 2015
“Each and every part (of the petroleum industry) is basically a monopoly.”
“Under a monopoly there can be no innovation.”
“Outsiders can’t break into it at all.”
“It is the one and only child. The toys are all his. He plays with them anyway he wants, and he throws them around.”
On camera, one after another, Chinese policy-making officials and environmental administrators indicted the China National Petroleum Corporation, a SOE that has contributed a great deal to air pollution in China according to Chai Jing’s documentary Under the Dome. One quickly realizes that it is also a pretty accurate assessment of the Communist Party regime itself and China’s political landscape.
“It’s not that I’m afraid to die; it’s that I don’t want to live this way.” Chai Jing’s self-reflection has now become an internet meme, but it is not the intention of the former CCTV investigative reporter to make her film a political analogy. On the contrary, some of her critics believe it actually helps weaken the demand for government accountability. Those who have been persecuted for taking part in the environmental movement or those who made similar documentaries but were harshly banned raised their doubts about how Chai Jing is able to successfully make the documentary and disseminate it.
Many environmental professionals jointed the discussion, providing the public with expert analyses and recommendations. But such expertise, taken from research and experiences in the developed countries, has long been published, and it’s hard to imagine the Chinese government has not acquired them with its mighty purchasing power. It’s been at least 10 years since the Party, under environmental pressure, proclaimed its “scientific outlook for development,” and the public has bought into the preaching that “it will change given time.” But a decade on, the smog has gotten worse. The short answer is, China’s political smog is the greater cause of its environmental smog.
Chai Jing corrects some misinformation such as the body’s adaptability to bad air. But think about it, the propaganda juggernaut works overtime to convince people that China has a special cultural tradition, Chinese like to be dominated and long for a political strongman, and they will not adjust to a democratic political system. In short, China needs dictatorship.
In fact, it is not that people have adapted to dictatorship, but that dictatorship has been damaging people’s independent thinking. “I don’t think there is any information that suggests that exposing your child to air pollution is going to help them to adapt,” Professor Edward Lawrence Avol at the University of Southern California told Chai Jing. “If you expose them on day one, they lose some function. If you expose them on day two, they don’t lose the same amount, but that’s not because they have adapted, but because they have already lost that function.”
Smog was already very serious ten years ago, but it did not make people so uneasy as it does today. As Chai Jing points out, that’s because we didn’t call it smog; we called it fog, a lovely thing for Chinese whose literature is imbued with poetic descriptions of fogginess. But Chai Jing avoided telling her audience that the concept of PM2.5 was brought to the Chinese public by the U. S. Embassy. It monitored Beijing’s air quality and publicized the data every day, and that’s how the Chinese public learned the truth about the air. In Chai Jing’s film, China’s environmental officials are portrayed very positively, but back then, they protested repeatedly, accusing the American embassy of violating diplomatic protocols. Meanwhile, the state media fanned patriotism, saying our “air quality data cannot be dictated by others.” Thanks to the American embassy’s “violation,” we know we have smog, not fog.
“One Party Dictatorship Leads to Disasters Everywhere” was the title of an editorial of Xinhua Daily, the communist party’s mouthpiece, in 1946, and the one-party dictatorship referred to the Nationalist Party rule. Today, the communist party cannot deny the existence of poisonous milk powder, poisonous pork, poisonous rice, polluted air, soil and water. But despite these environmental disasters, they insist that China must “unwaveringly maintain the party’s leadership.” When defending the industry’s monopoly, Cao Xianghong, the director of China’s National Petroleum Standard Committee and former chief engineer of CNPC, said, “Petroleum is a security issue, and it could easily cause big problems.” Politically, many Chinese have accepted the same threat that democracy will lead to turmoil, and dictatorship brings safety.
Monopoly inevitably leads to corruption. The documentary told us that “among the 36 heavy industries in China, 22 are suffering from serious overcapacity.” But instead of being eliminated by the free market, the state is propping them up with large subsidies. In the film, Liu Shiyu, the deputy head of the PBC, China’s central bank, described them as zombie companies. “They consume a large amount of financial resources, they bring unpredictable risk to our real economy, but they are still expanding.” Alas, this is also a good portrait of the regime.
Chai Jing calls to dismantle the monopolies of CNPC and Sinopec, but as long as the political monopoly remains, fair competition is unlikely, and the environmental industry will become the new field for monopoly and exploitation by the power players. That’s why many netizens seconded the assessment that “it will only get worse if the market is opened up.”
In tackling pollution, the most important lessons China can learn from the developed countries are the public’s right to know through a free press, civic participation through freedom of association, and environmental litigation through an independent judiciary. But Xi Jinping’s government has been strangling the media and the internet through harsher censorship, and they have made it clear that “governing the country according to the law” must be led by the Party. As for civic movements, including NGOs, we have been witnessing a steady elimination of some of the most inspirational organizations of civil society through the persecution of the New Citizens Movement, Transition Institute, Liren Library, Yirenping, and independent candidates for people’s representatives. Breaking up a monopoly in a certain industry will not drive away the smog. To bring back the blue skies over China, the political monopoly must be lifted too.
Chang Ping (长平) is a veteran Chinese journalist and commentator of current affairs. He lives in Germany now. A more extended biography can be found here.
Amidst the Smog, I Hear the Bugle Call for a National Environmental Movement, by Wu Qiang, February 22, 2014.
(Translated by China Change)