A Quest to Bring Back a Patch of Blue Sky

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Stephen King’s 2009 sci-fi novel “Under the Dome” tells an intricate tale about the residents of a town called ‘Chester Mill, who are all cut off from rest of the world by a huge, indestructible dome filled with toxic air. Chinese investigative journalist Chai Jung’s compares China’s current environmental crisis to Stephen King’s story in her deliberately titled, powerful documentary “Under the Dome”. The 103-minute documentary is filled with raw data, dizzying statistics, and filmed like Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” or like a TED speech.

Chai inquires upon China’s ever-worsening air pollution threat that’s causing heart and lung problems more common. Children are born with lung defects. Some of the Chinese metropolitan city’s children have never seen patch of blue sky since gray color has permanently covered the atmosphere. Chai even shows us headlines that ‘fog’ being the cause of flight delays and traffic collisions. But, the real reason for gray skies is fog’s dangerous sibling, known as ‘smog’. Smog is a type of air pollutant that’s caused by excessive burning of coal. The mixture of smoke and sulfur dioxide causes the smog, a term which was first coined in the 1950’s.

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While the government officials as usual blame it on the fireworks or outdoor grills, Chai gets to the root of China’s deadly smog problem. Her investigation has also been a mother’s quest to trace the origin of a problem that brought benign tumor on an infant’s lungs. Chai’s arduous, long investigations started when she brought her small girl with lung problem. She recalls the days when she drives home and holds up a kerchief up to her daughter’s nose to stop the flow of smog into the child’s lungs. Chai states that she has funneled this fear into making this documentary.

The documentary boasts a variety of interviews from experts, aloof government officials, and caring citizens. But, what’s most striking is the never-before-seen images of China, like a river running off with dead fishes; or the unbelievable plumes of smoke tumbling from factories. At first, the rapid growth of industrial development seems to be the sole problem for the smog. However, Chai cuts through that conventional narrative and reveals the face of state-owned, big oil companies, which has persistently refused to produce higher grade and low emission fuels. She asks significant questions to local officials who protect big industries.

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The officials too openly state that she or nobody can shut down these steel or coal factories, since its creating jobs and paying taxes. The environment officials reveal their powerlessness in enforcing the government laws, as one guy jokingly says, “Nowadays, I don’t want to open my mouth because I’m afraid you’ll see that I’m toothless”. Like many Chinese citizens, Chai confesses that only recently she has found out the difference between smog and fog.

Detractors of the documentary are, however, calling “Under the Dome” a propaganda piece for Chinese president Xi Jinping (to promote new environmental policies), who has declared that keeping a blue sky is his top priority. China’s new environmental minister Chen Jining is also said to have sent a congratulatory note to Chai Jung, expressing his admiration. Despite such claims it’s vital to note that the censors removed all the mention of the video from major Chinese websites as heated debates about smog problem commenced online. It is true that Journalist Chai doesn’t explicitly criticize China’s top leaders or their policies. But, her documentary clearly shows the dangerous cost of rapid industrialization.

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The documentary has also grasped our attention in a week, where our Indian environmental activists expressed concern over the government authorities’ statement that they would temporarily stop releasing air-pollution figures for Delhi, one of the world’s most polluted cities. Indian governments, which always likes to bury the bad news, has asked for the compiled data from air-monitoring stations, situated in the Capital city. The figures will be released after thorough analysis by a government board to provide ‘authentic information to the people of Delhi’. There’s surely lot of things, especially for us Indians, to learn from this thought-provoking documentary.

 

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