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Choking on Smog, China’s Urban Dwellers Emerge in Protest

Wu Qiang, December 14, 2016

“They had merely to sit on the edges of Tianfu Square wearing smog masks for police bring them in for interrogation until the early hours of the morning — this is a clear show of how deeply anxious Chengdu authorities are about protests against smog.”



Wearing masks, a group of artists and writers sat at Chunxi Road, Chengdu, on December 11.


For the last week, inland China has been enveloped in smog. Some cities issued emergency smog warnings; others cancelled outdoor activities at schools. In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, the government banned gatherings in Tianfu Square (天府广场)— as though they were afraid of something. And just as expected, on the weekend, Chengdu residents came out in numbers on Chunxi road in the central business district and on Tianfu Square. Some sat down quietly wearing pollution masks, others held up banners of protest.

In the frigid winter night of a smog-enclosed 2016, the protest of Chengdu residents was like the flash of a shooting star.

These are the “smog politics” of contemporary China. The smog question has almost transformed the landscape of Chinese politics since February 2015, with the broadcast of the documentary “Under the Dome” (穹顶之下) by former CCTV journalist Chai Jing (柴静). The government has been busy: Under the aegis of unifying the Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei) conurbation, Beijing has embarked on a project of social engineering aimed at resolving the smog problem: heavily polluting industries in Hebei have been forced to lower output, stop production, or shutter; Beijing has embarked on a program of “low-end population congestion relief;” and villages on the outskirts of Beijing are in the midst of converting from coal-based to to natural gas energy for heating. Meanwhile, smog continues to enshroud China now and then, and saturating social media is the discontent of the Chinese middle-class, only interrupted from time to time by a variety of other politically-tinged incidents — the “poisoned running tracks,” “the Lei Yang incident,” the “Luo Er fundraising scandal,” and bullying at the Zhongguancun No. 2 Elementary School.

It is as though a new middle class, as full of uncertainty as it is of energy, is rapidly forming its own class politics in the shroud of China’s smog. There is, for instance, the movement to “make a fortune and get out as soon as possible,” referring to emigration. There are also large collectives of underground discontent who express themselves on social media. And then there are always the unexpected small-scale protest actions in the streets.


A man in Hangzhou wearing a mask with the Chinese character 忍 (to put up with). Online photo.

Even as the authorities move to suppress human rights lawyers and emphasize once again political thought work in schools, a politically-awakened middle-class, oriented around the politics of pollution, is forming in a rapidly urbanizing China. With their own series of often indecisive demands and modes of expression, they’ve begun to displace the rights defense movement that came before, and their numbers are quietly growing.

For instance, on the evening of December 11 in Tianfu Square, the majority of those in the sit-in were local artists and culture workers — they’d either come of their own initiative, or were mobilized by emphatic protest slogans shared on social media in the last few days. The online posts advertising the protest seemed to be inspired by the confluence of art and politics over the last few years: the various artistic creations of Ai Weiwei (艾未未), for instance, or the protest performances of the Song Zhuang art circle (北京宋庄艺术圈子), or the anti-smog demonstrations during the Beijing Marathon. They had merely to sit on the edges of Tianfu Square wearing smog masks for police to bring them in for interrogation until the early hours of the morning — this is a clear show of how deeply anxious Chengdu authorities are about protests against smog. Local social media users on Monday even circulated an official notice that the wearing of masks is prohibited during school assembly, and that air purifiers were not going to be installed. It’s as though wearing a face mask is mobilizing for a color revolution.

The deep fearfulness of the regime makes clear the power of middle-class politics “under the dome”: they need barely to raise a crowd — simply holding a small-scale protest action, even when unlikely to have any real effect, makes the authorities extremely nervous, and they rally the troops like it was the eve of battle. The Pengzhou petrochemical project (彭州石化项目), close to Chengdu and most likely to have a deleterious impact on the environment, probably won’t be scrapped because of this. But leading officials in Sichuan and Chengdu know they don’t have the option of putting their feet up and blaming everything on the policies of those who came before. Quite the opposite: it’s likely that in the weeks and months ahead, they’ll be stewing over the protests, like they’re sitting on the mouth of a volcano. Perhaps this is precisely the homogenizing character of smog: concentrated in major cities, yet inescapable to all.



Students at Sichuan Fine Arts Academy put masks on stone lions on campus.


This is where smog politics differs from the NIMBY movement of the past few years. When the Pengzhou petrochemical plant got going, Chengdu didn’t erupt in mass protests like those against the paraxylene plant in Xiamen in 2013. That requires a small number of committed environmental activists coupled with widespread public engagement — but now the prophylactic and suppressive power of the security forces has grown so quickly, they’re able to shut such protests down.

Smog is different. Within just a few years, it’s turned all city dwellers into collective victims — and amplified the sense of frustration and grievance of those who are trying, and every day failing, to enter the middle class. The most aggrieved among them aren’t rights defenders that the authorities have already identified, ready to apprehend at a moment’s notice. Now, no matter how small the protest is — even if it’s just a selfie with a slogan written on paper — as soon as it happens, the homogenizing character of China’s pollution politics means that everyone soon hears about it, and it becomes a general protest.

All this means that everyone — not just those in North China, or denizens along the Yangtze river or coast, but the central and local governments too, and the state-backed “environmental experts” who were brought out to defend the Pengzhou petrochemical plant, as well as the nationalists like Zhou Xiaoping (周小平) — now finds themselves in an uncertain and unprecedented gambit. There’s no solution: only the arrival of a crisp northern gale, or a summer typhoon, is able to temporarily lift the stifling smog.

But these two natural forces are no help to those in the Chengdu basin. As long as the smog doesn’t clear, protests in Chengdu will continue to serve as a model specimen of China’s pollution politics, keeping the discussion alive among the urbanized middle class, fanning debate, and inviting citizens elsewhere to emulate. This will be a test of whether or not China has something like a “civil society,” and whether its middle class has political significance. Like France on the eve of 1789, any spontaneous protests by Chengdu citizens could turn into a movement demanding clean air. When that happens, the final stage of pollution politics will have arrived.


Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.



Also by Wu Qiang:

The Death and Life of Middle Class Politics in China

The Four Forces of China’s Politics of Smog

What Do Lu Yuyu’s Statistics of Protest Tell Us About the Chinese Society Today?



12 Years in Prison for Trying to Protect Spotted Seals

By Yaxue Cao, published: November 16, 2015

While the number of spotted seals keeps dwindling, its ardent protector gets jail time – an all too familiar Chinese tale.  


田继光_斑海豹广告The 52-year-old Tian Jiguang (田继光) is an environmentalist living in the northeastern province of Liaoning, China, known for his commitment to protecting spotted seals that breed in the wetlands of his hometown, where the Liao River meets the Yellow Sea. He was arrested in October 2013 for “alleged extortion.” When he was indicted, he was given an additional charge of “embezzlement.”

In September 2014 he was sentenced by the Dawa County Court (大洼县法院) to 12 years in prison—5 years for extortion, and 8 for embezzlement. Last Friday (November 13), Panjin Municipality Intermediate Court (盘锦市中级法院) upheld the original verdict after the second instance trial. The decision once again sent shockwaves, and revulsion, through China’s NGO sector.

According to reports in Chinese media, citing the indictment and other sources, Tian’s detention was a direct result of a blog post in June 2013 that exposed a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation for pollution. After his article was posted, the company sent officials to speak with him—suggesting a RMB100,000 yuan (about $16,000) sponsorship of his NGO. This became the basis for the “extortion” charge against Tian. But according to his lawyer’s defense posted online, Tian never asked the company for sponsorship, and the 100,000 yuan was never transferred. Tian did accept a small reimbursement from the company for the purchase of a Canon camera for the group he founded—the Association of Volunteers for the Protection of Spotted Seals—but his lawyer argued that neither “threats” nor “blackmail” was involved on Tian’s part, necessary to constitute the crime of “extortion.”

田继光_spotted sealsMonths later when Tian was indicted, there was the additional embezzlement charge against him—he was accused of having pocketed RMB 460,000 yuan (about $74,000) from the Association. His lawyer Ni Zeren (倪泽仁) argued that, while there were indeed irregularities in the Association’s bookkeeping, it is “utterly irresponsible” for the prosecutors to accuse Tian of embezzling 460,000 yuan out of the total 490,000 yuan (about $79,000) that the Association had received over the years from donations and sponsorships. Family members said Tian had over the years spent his own money on many of his activities.

During the first trial, two witnesses from the oil company refused to appear in court to be cross-examined. The lawyer told media, during the second instance trial, evidence benefitting Tian Jiguang was not introduced, nor did the court consider the many questions the lawyer raised. It took the court only half an hour to deliver the verdict.

Spotted seals are the only seals that breed in China’s waters. Every November, they swim from Baengnyeong Island, South Korea, to the mouth of Liao River in Panjin. Come January, they give birth to baby spotted seals on ice floats; in April, they swim back to Baengnyeong Island.

In 2007, Tian, a member of the Communist Party, was a private businessman who ran an advertising company. His father was a former chief of Panshan County’s Fisheries Bureau and his brother was a deputy chief in Panshan County’s Ocean and Fisheries Bureau, in charge of the protection of spotted seals. The brother asked Tian to place some spotted seal advertisements, an assignment that led Tian into the field of environmentalism. He soon founded the Panjin City Association of Volunteers for the Protection of the Spotted Seals (盘锦市保护斑海豹志愿者协会).

The Association quickly gained 3,000 members, and Tian often organized them to stand on the street and talk to citizens about issues associated with spotted seals. Once, he mobilized 2,000 volunteers from all over the country to collect garbage on the beach. Each winter, Tian and volunteers would station themselves in an observation outpost to watch and photograph the seals.

Photo: People's Daily

Photo: People’s Daily

Tian set up a billboard on the roadside of the Spotted Seals Reserve, instructing fishermen to call his own cell phone number when they saw spotted seals. They began calling him, for his responsive service, instead of the station set up by the government. Tian’s devotion was recognized by both the people and the authorities: in 2010, he was one of the ten “People of the Ocean” chosen by the State Oceanic Administration.

“Due to ocean pollution, oil drilling, port construction, and the expansion of mudflat aquaculture, not to mention human capture and killing, the number of spotted seals has dwindled from near 10,000 to less than 2,000 today,” he wrote in 2012. “The spotted seals arrived in the Liao River Bay before humans did, and we must leave enough space for the indigenous animals to live and survive as we extract oil, build roads, and seek development for ourselves.”

As he became more well known, Tian led the sometimes contentious process of environmental advocacy. In 2011, he mobilized a large number of NGOs across China to demand the government change the course of a highway that would have gone through the spotted seals habitat. The government finally agreed to move the highway 18 kilometers away.

In April 2013, he revealed through his Weibo account that oil rigs of the Liaohe Oil Field were only one kilometer away from the spot where the seals came to shore. People’s Daily reported the matter and interviewed Tian. “We hope the city will suspend the construction of a viewing corridor and shelve the oil field development so as to leave the spotted seal habitat in peace,” he told the Party mouthpiece.  

In June 2013, Tian exposed the wastewater and garbage pollution of the Oil Field’s subsidiary Special Petroleum Company (辽河油田盘锦特油公司).  

According to the lawyers, Tian rejected the ruling. He believes that instead of penalizing environmental violators, the local government was persecuting him and his environmental group. He vowed to take his case to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s internal investigatory organ.  

The office of the Association of Volunteers for the Protection of Spotted Seals, on the 4th floor of a modest building, is now empty and accumulating dust, according to an article in Southern Weekend; its website has been shut down because no one has renewed the server contract; all of the observation events and public awareness campaigns have stopped.

Members become emotional when speaking of Tian. They believe he was persecuted for his persistence and determination in the cause. Responding to the verdict, an NGO practitioner in China told China Change that “we all feel extremely unsafe.”  

Two years ago today, China announced the abolition of the notorious Re-education Through Labor system and was widely lauded for the move. But the past two years have seen extended detention without trial, trial without verdict, or secret detention, being used to target dissent instead. The charges laid against lawyers, dissidents, activists, and NGO workers are often arbitrary.

In Tian Jiguang’s case, the 12-year sentence legally imposed through the court system makes labor camps, which carry a maximum 4-year sentence, seem like a good deal.



中国环保名人田继光昨日受审,腾讯新闻,May 29, 2015

環保人士田繼光勒索罪維持原判, i-cable in Hong Kong, November 13, 2015.

敲诈罪?侵占罪?律师称:无罪, the first trial defense, Sina blog, March 12, 2015. (with photos)

赶走公路,深陷油污——一个动物保护明星的陨落,《南方周末》,June 11, 2-15.

斑海豹“家”在何处:栖息地宁静不再, People’s Daily, May 2, 2013.



Spotted seals’ habitat under threat again, China Dialogue, October 8, 2012.

See a slideshow of spotted seals at China Dialogue.


The Four Forces of China’s Politics of Smog

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.

A man in Hangzhou wearing a mask with the Chinese character 忍 (to put up with). Online photo.

A man in Hangzhou wearing a mask with the Chinese character 忍 (to put up with). Online photo.

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)

Wu Qiang (吴强)

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.


Under the China Dome – A Reality Check

By Yaxue Cao, published: March 9, 2015

China’s left foot wants to go north, and China’s right foot wants to go south. Both feet have the same goal, and, that is, to maintain the one-party rule.


When I first watched Chai Jing’s Under the Dome a week ago, my response was like everyone else’s: “Bravo!” In early 2013, shortly after the prolonged smog that cloaked much of China which Chai Jing mentioned at the beginning of her film, political science professor Wu Qiang at Tsinghua University wrote an article titled Amidst the Smog, I Hear the Bugle Call for a National Environmental Movement and China Change translated it. So, watching the film, my mind jumped, “the Bugle Call!

But instantly, I had other thoughts, too, just like many others did: without the government’s acquiescence or even assistance, a private citizen, even a celebrity citizen, could not have completed the investigation in which she was able to interview government officials of various positions, make inquiries with the National People’s Congress (NPC), and follow the police during their enforcement tours. In China, the government controls who can, and who cannot, expose its failings, what can and cannot be exposed. And without an order from some office, it’s practically impossible to premier the film on the People’s Daily website and disseminate it on all internet portals under the 24/7 watch of the censors.

Regardless, I think the making and dissemination of the film is a landmark event. I agree with Ian Johnson’s assessment that the film is “the final proof that the Party is serious about the issue,” but the party has other determinations too. The film galvanized public opinion and consolidated its awareness to an unprecedented level. It peeled apart the multi-faceted causes of pollution. It is a mobilization of the public, and it sets expectations for a war against environmental disasters. The film works on many layers of the public psyche, and not all of them are welcomed by the government. This probably explains why it was spectacularly promoted and then shut down.

“In order to solve the environmental problem in China,” said Wang Yuesi (王跃思), an atmospheric scientist at China Academy of Sciences, “first, we need to have better management. Second, we still need to have better management. Third, we still need to have better management.” Though not an expert, I’m going to take a quick look at management, management, and management.

Law and Policy

Most people are probably impressed by the government officials and researchers who spoke on camera. They are insightful about the causes of environmental ills and candid about solutions.

With one zero after another, Chai Jing gives us shocking account of how laws and regulations have not been enforced.

As outsiders, we are shocked that China’s petroleum standards are set by the industry itself, and the environmental authority didn’t even have a vote. Chai Jing talked about how the EU, Canada, Australia, Mexico, South Korea and Japan formulate their respective standards, how it is a result of multilateral participation, consultation and voting. But she didn’t point out what these six political systems have in common: they are all democracies in which each participating party has independent power safeguarded by the rule of law, and the powers check each other to reach optimal solutions through procedures established in similar manners. Chai Jing’s film seems to share this ideal of governance. But does the Communist Party share it?

We can foresee that China will be improving its policy making process, the environmental authority probably will get its vote on the Standard Committee, but ultimately everything will still be subjected to the will and need of the party, whatever that may be at a given point.


Unlike Article 53 of the Law of the Peoples Republic of China on the Prevention and Control of Atmospheric Pollution, most of the Chinese environmental laws do specify enforcement authorities. The truck stopped by enforcement officers has a certificate, issued by environmental authorities in Hebei province, for meeting the national emission phase III standard, but in reality it has no emission measure. On camera, the officer squirms, telling Chai Jing that he can’t fine this truck because it is delivering the city’s essential supplies – eggs, milk and cooking oil. Here you witness a case in which an administrative order overrides the law. It is common in China.

In my favorite section of the film, Li Kunsheng, Beijing’s environmental official in charge of emission regulations, said that Chinese automakers, against the law, falsify data and that 90% of the vehicles don’t have basic emission controls. Individual automaker’s argue that they can’t afford to manufacture vehicles with proper emission controls if all of their competitors are omitting them. In addition, they argue, without gasoline supplies that meet a national standard, what’s the use of making cars that use cleaner gas? The Chinese petroleum industry does not produce high-grade gas because the industry itself is in charge of setting the standard, and being a monopoly, it is not inclined to upgrade gasoline.

Such a mess. There are laws, but they cannot be enforced. There is the know-how, but it is not carried out. How so? Let me try an analogy: A judge sits in the court, the plaintiff is his daughter, the defendant is his son, the prosecutor is his brother, the plaintiff’s attorney is his sister, the defendant’s attorney is his wife, and the court martial is his cousin. But this doesn’t prevent the judge from gaveling the court, “The dignity of the law lies in its enforcement!” (Xi Jinping)

Monopoly and Competition

On camera one by one, officials indict the state-owned petroleum industry. “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.”

Cao Xianghong, the director of the National Petroleum Standard Committee and former chief engineer of CNPC, rejoins, “Petroleum is a security issue, and it could easily cause big problems.” Supply disruption could cause social instability and turmoil. Opening the market could lead to disaster. “Not any Tom, Dick, Harry can run a fuel company.”

It sounds like the left brain and the right brain of the party are punching each other, doesn’t it?

Chai Jing tells us, the U. S. auto companies also complained when the government tried to raise emission standards, and allowing competition from foreign companies forced American auto makers to keep pace. “Weren’t you afraid of hurting the national auto industry?” Chai Jing asks an American environmental official. “Environmental protection is not a burden,” she is told. “It’s innovation. Protecting a backward industry is no way to promote innovation. The government’s role is to set the standards and ensure fair competition in the market. You win the market through fair competition.”

Try to put this mindset in the communist party in China. This is more or less how the Party approaches international competition, judging from the trend of the last couple of years: when I don’t know how to do it, I welcome you to come and show me how. When I’ve learned how to do it, you can’t make money from my market anymore.

The ongoing Two Sessions is signaling that the environmental industry will play a big part in China’s economic transition and drive new growth. The British Energy and Climate Change Minister Edward Davey told Chai Jing that “You must give the emerging industry a fair chance at competition. If you do, it will surprise you.” The irony is, while the petroleum industry is a state monopoly and monopoly had led to rampant environmental abuses, the rising environmental industry will most certainly be a state monopoly too and a new playground for those in power. You will be lucky if it does not turn into the new toy of powerful clans like the petroleum industry is to the Zhou Yongkang clan and the power industry to the Li Peng clan. We have yet to see whether Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign will clamp down the tigers, but we can be certain that there will be flies everywhere.

Citizen Actions

Wrapping up the film, Chai Jing speaks movingly of “our choice and our determination,” making a strong appeal for civic action. Among her recommendations are:

1) Citizen watchdog. Download apps, take photos, call 12369 to report pollution, or expose it on Weibo. Chai Jing says, while reporting SARS ten years ago, she realized how important it is to have information transparency. But information transparency is not limited to emission numbers on an app. How do you have information transparency when information is monopolized by the government, media is not independent, and citizens cannot express themselves freely?

2) Litigation. We’ve all seen photos of polluted villages and rivers in China. Law professor He Weifang (贺卫方), upon watching Under the Dome, wrote on Weibo, “there are often many victims in a pollution case, but an individual may not have enough courage to pursue litigation and sufficient ability to present evidence. This is where class action as a legal mechanism can stem rights infringement, compensate the victims, and improve judiciary effectiveness…In the U. S., this mechanism has played a significant role in environmental protection.” But Professor He lamented, “Unfortunately this country has a deep-seated fear of group actions, and meanwhile the judiciary is not independent. It’s difficult!”

To be sure, China has just established law for “joint action” in pollution litigation. In an overview of China’s class action law, King & Wood Mallesons points out that, “the recent amendment [August 2012] to the Civil Procedure Law of the P.R.C. (“CPL”) added provisions for certain joint litigation in areas of public interest related to ‘pollution to the environment’ and ‘damage [to the] legitimate rights and interests of consumers at large. In these cases of public interest litigation, however, only certain ‘designated institutions may institute proceedings.’ It is believed that for environmental public interest litigation going forward that entity will be the All-China Environmental Federation (ACEF).”

In other words, the victims cannot sue; only this organization connected with the government may sue. Why don’t I just call this law a fake law?

Professor Wu Qiang of Tsinghua University wrote, “In the past ten years, although the Property Rights Law was passed, private property owners are still unable to obtain effective protection. It is difficult for private property owners or environmentalists to resist pollution by asserting their property rights, or to make claims and demand compensation for rights infringement by polluters. The issue of private property has been debated non-stop ever since the economic opening and reform began. As long as this issue is not dealt with, not included in the civil code, and not recognized by the Constitution and safeguarded by an independent judicial system, it will be difficult to curb environmental pollution from the approach of civil law, and the environmental movement will not be able to take root and grow strong.”

The new Environmental Protection Law of PRC, which took effect on January 1, 2015, stipulates that social organizations specializing in environmental protection and public interest activities for five consecutive years or more and having no law violation records may file litigation with the courts. There are 700 NGOs that meet the criteria, but the problem is, most of these NGOs, like ACEF, are either trade associations under de facto leadership of the government or NGOs funded by the government. To expect them to represent the victims by suing the polluters, that often are SOEs, is tantamount to climbing a tree to catch fish (缘木求鱼).

There are a small number of true NGOs in China. But they are extremely vulnerable, and the authorities can make criminalize an NGO if they want to. Did Gongmeng (公盟) break the law? It was outlawed. Did Liren Library (立人图书馆) break the law? It was forced to close its doors. Key leaders of the Transition Institute (传知行) were arrested without even a plausible reason. NGOs receiving foreign funding and training are being terrorized now and can be interrogated for espionage and divulging “secrets.” It’s a shame that Chai Jing did not interview some prisoners who “provoked disturbances,” “engaged in illegal business operation,” or “incited the subversion of the state power.”

In a country where citizens are forbidden to exercise their basic political rights and civil rights, where they mostly don’t even have the right to sue when their interests are damaged, how do we even talk about the right to know, the right to participate, and the right to legal relief? Chinese citizens not only do not elect their “people’s representatives,” they don’t even know which of the 3,000 representatives convening in the Great Hall of People represent them. Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said that, ever since 2007, he has been asking the NPC to publicize contact information of the representatives, and he has gone nowhere with his Quixotic quest.

In China 90% of vehicles have fake emission certificates. So what? The people’s representatives are 100% fake. Remember that fellow, the head of the Environmental Protection Department of Shanxi province? “The cat,” he said, “is the local government’s cat. Whether this cat can catch mice or not, how many mice it can catch, is decided by the local government. It’s not decided by the environmental protection authority.” The same is true on the national level, and the state-sponsored NGOs are additional cats of the government.

I too inaugurated a theory recently.  It’s not “Four Comprehensives.” It is “Four Buts:”

  •         China wants to deepen reform, but it also wants to tighten control over society and its citizens;
  •         China wants to govern the country according to the law, but it also insists on the party’s supreme leadership;
  •         China wants to encourage innovation, but it rejects real competition;
  •         China wants to have world-class universities, but it also wants to extinguish free thinking.

China’s left foot wants to go north, and China’s right foot wants to go south. Both feet have the same goal, and, that is, to maintain the CCP’s one-party rule.

The journey of Chai Jing’s documentary is a microcosm of the party’s own embattled state. It was premiered by the party’s mouthpiece, but at the same time, the party’s propaganda department was keeping vigilant. Its first edict said, “All media outlets are required not to hype Under the Dome, and must control and adjust online opinion.” “Control and adjust” reminded me of a switch that can be turned on or off, dimming the brightness at will. The blinding light beam of the film was dimmed down to a kerosene lamp in less than 48 hours and then turned off completely. The party’s control is a must; the party’s will is absolute. It is so for the film, and it is so for everything in China. Don’t be surprised if the party launches a smear campaign against Chai Jing tomorrow.

I don’t know whether you saw it or not – there is a thin smog over Under the Dome. Chai Jing the narrator assumes that this system is just like any other system in the world except things are not done right. She runs to the United States and to England, to shoot and ask questions, presenting their practices and successes and lamenting that China isn’t doing the same. She pretends Weibo is a place for free speech. She looks up at the blue planet, anticipating the system reform prescribed by a high-level official. She tallies all the sources of pollution except the biggest one. It is the same with those officials in the film. They are able to trace pollution to the energy monopoly, but they see no ills in the political monopoly. It’s not that they don’t see, of course. They are feigning they don’t see. Or they will be in prison or sent packing. But as everyone pretends, what’s the difference between their feigning and the faking of vehicle emission certificates? If the Global Times’ political smog index is 800 and People’s Daily and Xinhua’s 600, I say, Under the Dome has a reading of 200.

When I shared these thoughts on Twitter, a Chinese tweep argued with me. “As an ordinary citizen,” he (or she) said, “I drive less, develop green habits, do my share, and have peace of mind, that’s better than doing nothing.” I said to him (or her), the film no doubt is a milestone, a powerful bugle call, for the simple reasons that two hundred millions of Chinese have watched it, and that even though the party is able to spirit it away, it cannot efface, with a click of the delete key, the smog cloaking China and the pollution scarring the land. Citizens should do everything they can, I said, to contribute to a better environment, but what they can do is purposefully restricted by the system, and they must understand that the political blue sky is the real blue sky, the ultimate dome over China.



Yaxue Cao is the editor of this website. 


Bringing water to the thirsty north – China’s South-North Water Transfer Project

As we saw yesterday, China’s water problem urgently needs solutions. As is often the case in China, the Party has pushed forward a single massive project as their favorite option. This project is known as the “South-North Water Diversion Project,” and was inspired by a quote from none other than Chairman Mao who stated, “Southern water is plentiful, northern water scarce. If at all possible, borrowing some water would be good.” Mao may have gotten the idea from the Soviet Union, which was also working on a similar project at the time (that project was abandoned in the 80’s due to environmental concerns). The project began in 2002, and some sections are already in use.

The plan seems straight forward enough, pump water from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River (and other northern rivers) at three separate stretches. In theory this will allow China to take advantage of water that would otherwise flow into the ocean.

At the moment, droughts in the north contribute to considerable economic losses not only for farmers, but for factories and mining operations. Additionally, major cities like Beijing and Tianjin are facing water shortages that effect millions of urbanites.

There are of course some major concerns about such a large scale project.

For environmentalists, the problems are clear, diverting the flow of water from the Yangtze could further endanger the already disrupted ecosystem. The three-gorges dam accelerated the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin, and has critically endangered the Yangtze River finless porpoise. Also, with a lower flow of water, the river would have it’s self-cleansing capabilities further reduced. This would mean an even more polluted river system; bare in mind that “cancer villages” already exist along the banks of its tributaries.

For southern farmers and factory owners, it means an increased risk of drought. Even though Mao declared southern water to be plentiful, it did little to change the actual situation. Additionally, Chinese scientists claim that 94% of the rivers’ waters pour out in to the ocean, but during the north’s driest months, the Yangtze region also faces drought. Using a Google news search, I found that there were “severe” droughts in the area in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2011. The least serious of these effected nearly 4.5 million people. Even in typical years, the Yangtze region faces seasonal power shortages. In drought years, the project would have to drastically reduce its diversion, and would sit largely idle during the key period of the year (wasting ~$60 billion worth of infrastructure).

In order to minimize the effects of water shortages in the Yangtze River, some have suggested diverting water from the Brahmaputra and Mekong rivers (which start in China but flow through other countries before reaching the sea). China has confirmed that it has already started building dams along the Brahmaputra in Tibet, which has become a major source of contention between it and India (who already have strained relations). While this is not officially part of the South-North Water Diversion Project, it is seen as a possible first step.

The massive project ignores the possibility of more practical solutions, which would include raising the price of water, increasing enforcement of existing water use limits, and moving towards efficient use. As Ken Pomeranz stated in an interview on The China Beat on the topic (worth reading in full),

 “Probably most of the water savings that you could achieve without greatly reducing economic output are in agriculture, where a lot of irrigation is very inefficient (and not just in China); in fact, I think there’s a good case to be made that if you put anything like the cost of the South-North water diversion project into fixing a million leaky faucets, lining a million unlined irrigation ditches, enforcing existing wastewater treatment standards (allowing more water to be re-used), etc., etc., you could do more to alleviate the problem (and more safely) than the diversion project will do.”

For more on China’s water problems I reccomend Jonathan Watts’ excellent book “When a Billion Chinese Jump,” and this photo essay from Foreign Policy.

Western companies should be blamed for China’s pollution

When talking with Chinese friends and co-workers about the pollution levels in Nanjing (awful compared to developed countries, but decent for Chinese cities), they are quick to point out that foreign companies in China are the ones that should be blamed for the filthy air. While it is absolutely true that foreign companies are adding to China’s environmental woes, I’m not convinced they should shoulder all the blame.

Today, I’d like to start by discussing three points related to this statement, and I hope you’ll continue the discussion in the comment section below.

Production for the West

This factor is undeniable. Western consumers have benefited from the destruction of China’s environment by purchasing cheap goods. If all of our environmental standards were enforced globally (and corporations actually complied), then the price of goods would be higher.

The latest example of this can be seen in the fact that Apple’s production facilities in China have created many environmental problems while making goods far out of reach for most Chinese consumers.

The problem I have with this argument, is that the destruction of China’s environment for the sake of producing goods for the West has also benefited many Chinese by creating jobs (from migrant workers to factory owners). The pollution has been seen as a by-product of development, without questioning how it could have been avoided.

However with the slow down in the global economy, one would expect that declining demand overseas would correlate to China’s yearly carbon dioxide emissions. Instead we see China’s emissions have continued to grow during this time, as there have been massive pushes to increase domestic consumption. It turns out cheap Chinese products made in polluting factories aren’t any less attractive in Chinese Walmarts than they are in the West.

While consumers in ALL countries have a responsibility to choose environmentally responsible products, due to the explosive growth of Chinese manufacturing, it would be very difficult to buy only “green” products.

Chinese Companies

Another important point against this argument, is that China was polluted before foreign companies arrived in the late 70’s. Foreign companies work largely through or with Chinese factories, and Chinese companies are among the world’s least environmentally conscious. The idea that western corporations are doing something different than Chinese companies is ridiculous.

Let’s take a quick look at two companies operating in China that have been attacked in the Chinese press:

In Apple’s case, Foxconn is their major supplier and also their major polluter. Apple clearly should be making greater efforts to practice corporate responsibility, but Foxconn should not be absolved of wrongdoing simply because it is working with a foreign company. Yet in Chinese papers you will always see Apple taking the majority of the blame.

The same is true of the recent oil spill involving ConocoPhilips. Both Global Times and People’s Daily railed against their environmental destruction, and both failed to mention that a state owned company owned the majority share of the project.

While blaming foreign companies might be more politically palatable, it does little to address the underlying problem.

Lax Regulations

Let’s be honest, when it comes to corporations, do we really expect them to take any actions that don’t add to their bottom line?

Corporations have a responsibility to their share holders to maximize profits, and few legal responsibilities to communities beyond paying taxes. This might be a fairly negative view of corporations, but it is not surprising that companies will dump as much toxic waste into rivers, and spew as much carbon into the air as governments will allow (if it is profitable).

While cheap labor is often cited as a reason for companies moving to developing countries, lax environmental standards are another major factor.

For example, in Nanjing there is a large chemical factory owned by a German multi-national that is often blamed for the smog in the air. The question I always pose to my Chinese friends is, “Why didn’t they build this factory in Germany?” The reason being that environmental regulations in Germany would make this kind of processing plant incredibly expensive to run. The Nanjing gov’t invited the company here because it would increase local GDP.

This is the major underlying problem. The pursuit of local GDP development (in return for promotions) has essentially aligned the interests of local government leaders with those of corporations, instead of the people they supposedly represent. While the Central government has created CO2 emissions targets and other environmental incentives, local leaders still recognize the fact that the key to promotion is GDP.

Perhaps the most troubling example is Huaxi (read my series on the richest village in China), instead of being condemned for it’s reliance on dirty industries like fertilizer production and steel, it has been lifted up as a national model of excellence.

Even in cases where factories have been “shut down” for violating the already lax environmental regulations, they are frequently allowed to continue their operations until people end up in the hospital (numerous examples of lead poisoning from “closed” factories have surfaced in the last year).

If local governments encourage the creation of heavily polluting industries, than they too must shoulder some of the blame for the resulting mess.

Ultimately, even if every multinational pulled out of China tomorrow, there is little evidence that this would actually bring an end to China’s pollution problems. Certainly the West is benefiting from this environmental destruction, but to pretend that this disaster is not largely of China’s own making ignores the reality of the situation.

For unbelievable photos of China’s environmental devastation and the toll it takes on China’s people check out this post from