By Wu Qiang, published: March 15, 2014
Look beyond Chai Jing’s film.
In a time when opinion leaders, known as the “big verified accounts” or Big Vs, in China have been razed or driven away, who would have thought that one of them would re-activate the topic of smog with an eye-opening combination of a TED-like presentation and documentary interviews. Everything about Chai Jing’s film Under the Dome, from millions of views within two days, to the heated national debate, from the government’s initial encouragement to its subsequent censorship, indicates that it is a carefully-planned New Media event, and its purpose is to cause a small tsunami in the traditional arena of politics in order to establish a new framework for the politics of dealing with pollution.
For now, let’s leave alone the dramatic reverse of the Party’s propaganda department. More likely than not, its shutting down the film is due to the party’s fear of losing control over the boisterous online chattering. Let’s also refrain from speculating on Chai Jing’s motivation. She explains it away as her “private grievance against smog,” which is a sentimental, apolitical pretense that Big Vs like to sport these days when speaking to the public, but few would take it at face value. On the other hand, the film will effectively mobilize the public if everyone becomes aware of his or her self-interest in all of this. The question then is: who is directing this mobilization? My focus is not on Chai Jing’s role, whether she’s addressing a personal concern or acting as someone’s white gloves. Instead, let’s read into the film and identify the forces that drive China’s politics of smog.
The first force comes from the U. S. When Xi Jinping talked about blue sky during the APEC meeting last November, we should have known that the short-lived APEC Blue would turn out to mean a lot. President Obama and President Xi Jinping reached a deal in which China promised to reduce carbon emission by 20% by 2030. The deal was almost the sole instance of progress the Obama administration has made in the US-China relation at a time when the relationship is becoming more difficult. During the Clinton administration, the Most Favored Nation Trade Status was the issue that bound the relationship. During the Bush administration, the bond was war on terrorism. Now that these bonds have gone, the emission promise is becoming the new bond that keeps the two countries in a cooperative relationship in which they clash often but not break up. The deal is also one of the few gestures China makes to the United States and to the world that it is a responsible power and that it recognizes the international rules. Furthermore, smog is not just an internal affair of China. Carbon emission is a menace to the atmosphere and has long been a global issue, and the Chinese government can ill afford not to address the international concerns.
In fact, it was the U. S. embassy that had popularized the concept of PM2.5 in China. As another conservative country in the UN Climate Change Conference, the U. S. needs to work with China, an even more conservative country in the Conference. Smog therefore is a shared strategic topic for both countries, and it serves the political agenda of China’s new leaders. But of course they do not want to draw attention to the American factor of it. Instead, it is portrayed as President Xi’s concern for blue sky and as a part of his China Dream narrative. I’m sure Chai Jing’s team had a clear grasp of this opportunity, or, they might even have received hints as well as funding for the film. If so, the film is not a conspiracy as many suggested; rather, it is an explicit plan.
The second force is the collapse of the coal and oil alliance in China. In the early 20th century, Germany had an important conservative force known as the alliance of steel and rye. “Steel” refers to the steel monopoly led by the Krupp family, “rye” refers to the Prussian Junker landowners, and the alliance led to militarism and the rise of the Nazi party. Over the last decade or so, there existed in China a similar political alliance – the alliance of coal and petroleum, that has supplied most of China’s fuel. “Coal,” represented by the so-called “West-hill” faction (西山派), consisted of powerful officials and big coal mine owners in Shanxi, the coal-rich province. “Oil” is represented by executives of China National Petroleum Corporation, the biggest of the three large state-owned petroleum companies, and the party’s “politics and law” system controlled by Zhou Yongkang, the party’s former chairman of Politics and Law Committee, and his network of oil industry officials.
The two interest groups were formed during Jiang Zemin’s rein, a time marked by those in power making money quietly. They completed their slicing of the pie during the decade of “collective leadership” of the Politburo, and formed a political alliance to compete for the supreme leadership in China. But in 2014, they were politically struck down one after another. Of course the price drop in coal and oil diminished the profit, on which these two interest groups depended, lending a helping hand to the new leaders, so did the international pressure on China to deal with air pollution, the internal struggle, and the need to grow clean energy industries. Only now are Big Vs like Chai Jing able to raise direct questions about these groups, in what feels like a trial on Ling Jihua and Zhou Yongkang without their presence. Compared to the struggle to deal with “Tieben” (铁本) during Wen Jiabao’ time in 2004, the new leaders have been impressive. What remains, such as the zombie steel industry in Hebei, if the government could shut it down for a month during the APEC, it’s only a matter of time before it will be bankrupt. Everything will have to be subjected to the need to have blue sky in the so-called Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei economic region.
This is the small “domestic climate” of the smog era, while new energy in the developed countries, the myth of shale oil, OPEC’s refusal to limit production, and the UN climate change conferences together constitute the big “international climate.” Taking into consideration the direct pressure on the Chinese fossil fuel industries from American climate change politics, the collapse of the coal-oil alliance, marked by the fall of Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang and their failed attempt to stage a coup, is quite like a 2014 version of Lin Biao’s escape and subsequent death before Nixon’s China visit in 1972.
The third force is the power expansion of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). Throughout, the documentary gives voices to environmental protection organs, to their complaints about problems with environmental assessments, product standards and law enforcement power, etc. Chai Jing is like a spokesperson for MEP, making use of the smog to lobby her audience. If we look back at the protest against the Nu (Salween) River dam, one will have to admire the MEP. Among all of the ministry-level agencies, the MEP knows best how to leverage NGOs and Big Vs against local powers and utilize China’s environmental crisis to expand the agency’s own power, including upgrading the agency from bureau level to ministry level.
What we can expect next is the further expansion of the MEP. It is not bad in itself. New power will rise as coal-oil alliance falls. We can expect the increased binding power of environmental impact assessments, and the MEP being given decisive power in setting product standards and emission standards. It is also possible that the MEP will be given law enforcement authority for the first time, for example, the authority of forced inspection, search, sequestration, fines, recall and closure. We shouldn’t be surprised if in the future the MEP establishes its own environmental police force and environmental procureratorate, similar to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the United States, that merges the existing forest police force and fisheries regulatory body to form a new environmental law enforcement power. After all, the power redistribution and institutional reconstruction these changes bring is in line with the increasing trend of power concentration since Xi Jinping took power. It can also be put under the banner of “comprehensively deepening reform,” providing Chinese leaders with concrete evidence to show to the world that China is taking measures to reduce emission.
The fourth force is the public. The phrase “breathing the same air, sharing the same destiny” is effective social mobilization and can unleash the potential of a large scale environmental movement. Back in 2013 when northern China was cloaked in smog for extended periods of time, people felt compelled to do something. They had never felt so viscerally and so acutely, as they did during those days as their cities were shrouded in smog, the incompetence of the government, the anti-societal nature of capital monopoly, and the detrimental impact of China’s growth model on nature. The public’s environmental awareness has never been as strong as it is today. When facing repression, people may choose to remain silent about the smog problem or simply emigrate, but their discontent can manifest in other ways and can accumulate to become a time bomb for the Party-state. As face masks people wear everyday render surveillance cameras meaningless, the security organs are said to be very uneasy, fearing that the situation can spin out of control and lead to a smog revolution.
The numbers vary, but it must have taken the censorship apparatus by surprise when at least 30 million people watched the documentary and shared their opinions in the first hours of its premiering. This was almost an inconceivable happening, given the constrained state of the internet in China following “cleanups” against Big Vs. I tend to believe that Chai Jing’s documentary is a product of Xi Jinping’s “blue sky policy” and his New Media tactics, and that the propaganda department’s censorship is a cool-off decision to prevent further agitation of public opinion. It is the people who gave the film momentum and whom the propaganda department fears the most. Therefore, people are the most powerful actors in the politics of smog. As the main constituents of Xi Jinping’s blueprint for a “moderately prosperous society,” they could be trained to adhere to traditional cultural norms and appeased by the promise of blue sky. But they have potentials; many opportunities exist when they can wake up, turning from passive viewers to the main player of the politics of smog, making their voices heard, and tearing open the illusion that they are living in a comfortable and prosperous society.
These four forces, the international pressure, the outgoing coal-oil alliance, the ambitious technocrats in the MEP and the state reform organs, and the hitherto dormant citizens, are the four main roles in China’s politics of smog. Big Vs like Chai Jing are merely the agents of one or two forces. They themselves are not important. What is important is the timing and the framework.
Therefore, there is no better timing than 2015. The coal-oil alliance has gone bankrupt and can be made the chief culprit of the smog. And Xi Jinping’s “four comprehensives” (comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepen reform, comprehensively govern the country according to the law, and comprehensively apply strictness in governing the party) provides a good framework. The four forces appeared in Chai Jing’s documentary as the protagonist, the antagonist and the people it appeals to, each corresponding to an aspect of Xi’s governing framework, although the role of the U.S. and the international community is deliberately downplayed and citizens’ actions de-politicized. Regardless, we have to admire the film’s accurate presentation of China’s politics of smog.
Wu Qiang (吴强) is a political science professor at Tsinghua University.
Under the China Dome – A Reality Check, by Yaxue Cao, March 9, 2015.
Smog as a Political Analogy, by Chang Ping, March 4, 2015.
Amidst the Smog, I Hear the Bugle Call for a National Environmental Movement, by Wu Qiang, February 22, 2014.
(Translated by Yaqiu Wang and Yaxue Cao)
An abbreviated version of the Chinese original was posted here.
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