Why Has This Environmental Documentary Gone Viral on China’s Internet?

A ChinaFile Conversation

[Updated: March 6,  2015] Our friends at Foreign Policy hit the nail on the head by headlining writer Yiqin Fu's Monday story "China's National Conversation about Pollution Has Finally Begun." What happened? Well, in the last weekend of February, the feature-length Chinese documentary "Under the Dome" was released, first on the website of the state-run People's Daily newspaper, then on Youku, Tudou, and Tencent. (Watch a subtitled version on YouTube above and here). The film, which narrator and veteran China Central Television journalist Chai Jing said was inspired by her fear that pollution might have been responsible for her daughter's operation for a tumor at birth, was viewed more than 200 milllion times—and has since been taken off most major Chinese web sites. Our colleagues at the Chinese-language website China-U.S. Dialogue ran their liveliest conversation yet, drawing tens of thousands of comments about Chai's film via WeChat. In a country where media is tightly controlled, it is surprising, if not unprecedented, to see the unimpeded release of a self-funded investigative documentary about one of the most sensitive topics challenging China’s growth, especially when the film is critical of more than a few government agencies and is circulating so widely just ahead of the annual convening of China’s main legislative body. Following below are contributor reactions to what has been described at China's "Inconvenient Truth." —The Editors


Already an Internet viral sensation within China and abroad, "Under the Dome" is bringing the severity and humanity of China's environmental challenges—in particular its air pollution problem—into front and center stage. The fact that official state media Xinhua and recently-tapped Ministry of Environment Vice Minister Chen Jining came out in support of the video demonstrates a level of government awareness of the enormity of China's environmental problems and the role of public awareness in helping to address them. By relating the air pollution directly to human health, Chai Jing hits close to home to bring a personal perspective to China's air pollution. The viewer should be cautious, however, as the link between tumors and lung cancers and air pollution—especially fine particulate matter—isn't directly causal. In fact, the main health effect of fine particulate matter (PM) is cardiovascular disease, and high incidences of lung cancer are more directly tied to household air quality and smoking rates. Already, Chai Jing's film is being likened to a Silent Spring of sorts for China. The hope is that the documentary can continue to open more channels of dialogue between citizens, business, and the government to tackle the air pollution problem together.

Over the weekend, Chai Jing’s video “Under the Dome” registered more than 200 million views of the full-length video and clips of the video—meaning one in every three Chinese online watched at least some of it. Not surprisingly, this made the Chinese authorities nervous.

Chai Jing, in her late 30s, was a well-known CCTV investigative reporter over the past decade, both for her reporting on the National People’s Congress and hard-hitting coverage of environmental disasters throughout China. A little over a year ago, she became a mother and quit CCTV. Yet doctors told her that her baby daughter had a benign tumor and needed an emergency surgery. The operation was successful. But on her way back home with her baby, she smelled the sting of Beijing smog and wanted to do something. Then, she and her friends and crew launched into a self-funded year-long investigative documentary project understanding the reasons behind China’s air pollution and what can be done to solve the problem.

The viral video, which captured the whole 100 minutes of her TED-style talk, boiled down to a mother’s call for the whole nation to rise to the occasion and deal with the most important environmental issue in China today. Her efforts over the last year with her team have been nothing but extraordinary, given the complexity and scope of the problem. The top-notch production quality of her talk is reminiscent of Apple product launch events and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Most importantly, the viral promotion of Chai’s film elevating an issue affecting so many people is unprecedented in China’s Internet history. Again not surprisingly, her film’s success has also drawn criticism.

I have paid attention to this issue for almost a decade, long tracking air quality photographically in various cities at the website ChinaAirDaily, yet I can only dream of matching the effectiveness and outsized success of Chai’s team in making almost everybody talk about air pollution, including China’s newly appointed Minister of Environmental Protection. Some criticisms of Chai are fair, such as the fact that it is hardly the first such report and not the fullest nor deepest. Yet in this day and age, the presentation of information and the way the information is packaged may matter a lot more than the information itself. I think that Chai making a personal connection with the smog issue while talking about motherhood scored big time, arguably better than Al Gore did in his film. And Chai’s efforts to simplify layer after layer of complexity surrounding the issue of pollution—from coal quality to fuel standards to industrial regulation to public participation—all made the information a lot more digestible to average people on the street. Again, that’s another page from Apple, in my opinion, that the greatest form of complexity is simplicity.

In my view, Chai has performed many roles beautifully—a concerned mother, a well-versed and plainspoken journalist, an articulate presenter, a proactive citizen, and, critically, an effective self-made public relations specialist.

Chai spent over a year with her team zooming in on an issue close to their hearts. The attention they are getting is vindication that her time was well spent and the cause noble. It happens that the issue they are exploring is also personal for 600 million other Chinese with Internet access. Their work is largely done and successful. Next, we need to see action from not only the public, but also the government, industry, NGOs, and scientists.

I am not at all surprised by the success of “Under the Dome,” Chai Jing’s extraordinary documentary about air pollution in China. It is no surprise that the Chinese public was ready for such a documentary, nor that despite some propaganda apparatus grumbles it is not only widely available but publicly welcomed by the new head of the Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) Chen Jining.

Firstly, the public: China now has a middle class of how many? Almost half a billion. There are decades of research showing that demand for environmental improvement grows as societies become wealthier, and that within societies it is the wealthier strata that demand air quality improvements. Chai Jing is not wrong that the poor often suffer most, but those demanding improvements and those most likely streaming a web video are members of the middle class. Moreover, she frames the video with her audience’s anxiety in mind—there is also plenty of literature on Chinese parents’ anxiety for their children. She starts with her own child’s illness—she doesn’t argue that the illness itself is related to pollution (there wouldn’t be data to support that)—but she does show how it made her more sensitive to potential health hazards facing her child.

Then what about official acceptance and even recognition of the video? The Chinese government has pushed air quality improvements since 2006. It was a government program that drove sulfur dioxide emissions down more than 14% during the 11th Five-Year Plan period, and they’ve continued to drop in the 12th. But there are substantial challenges to continued progress, and Chai focuses directly on two of the big ones—small-scale coal burning and sulfur-laden petroleum. The first is a major logistical challenge, while the second is political. Chai aims directly at both, and she does so by using comments from MEP officials on screen, and a National Development and Reform (NDRC) official whose voice is scrambled.

The message she conveys is very much what MEP has been conveying for years. It has an active website and its officials grant interviews to the press regularly. It seems unsurprising that it would be open to a novel way to convey its message. She points out the legal gaps and institutional challenges MEP faces. Its successes to date have involved large-scale users of coal. Further success requires regulation of petroleum and other industries. MEP has known this for years, and the recent attacks on corruption in the petroleum industry may have made it more vulnerable to other criticism. What is unique and unpredictable is when one person, in this case Chai, decides to up the game. She makes a truly compelling film, both in terms of what has now become a familiar style from both An Inconvenient Truth and TED talks, and she really crams it with a lot of information put together in an interesting and informative manner.

With apparent support from the MEP, Chai had access to excellent information. Her access to data is impressive. It is difficult in China to get environmental health data, for example, and she gets quite a bit. Most of what she says is really well put, but there are some errors or sources of potential misunderstanding that I spotted. Angel Hsu has already pointed out that the largest health impact of air pollution is heart disease, not cancer. Indeed, most lung cancer in China today is caused by smoking, and the second most common cause is indoor, not outdoor ambient, air pollution. Chai’s discussion of how clean coal is used in households and small factories is also somewhat confused—coal washing will not solve either the sulphur dioxide (SO2) or PM2.5 problems. And her discussion of the seasonality of air pollution in China appears to weight it entirely toward home heating, when weather and wind patterns play important roles that will require policy interventions beyond cleaning the heating sector.

"Under the Dome" is extraordinarily timely. I will be looking at whether this galvanizing of public opinion (including the opinion of China’s rank and file government workers) helps advance regulatory reform, including appropriate standards for petroleum and the implementation of the new regional air quality standards.

Chai Jing’s documentary is powerful, resonant, and worthy of discussion. However, to describe the film as the beginning of China’s national conversation on pollution is not only inaccurate but also unhelpful. Inaccurate, because China’s history of environmental debate, activism, and policymaking is now long and complex. Unhelpful, because the many journalists, scientists, NGOs, and others that helped to put green issues on the agenda need all the recognition and support they can get.

Reporters have long been at the cutting edge of a conversation sometimes known as China’s “green public sphere.” Many of the founders of China’s earliest and most significant environmental NGOs were journalists. Liu Detian, founder of the country’s first legally registered green group, reported for Panjin Daily News. Filmmaker Liao Xiaoyi established Global Village of Beijing in 1995, inspired by NGOs she had seen at the Fourth U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing. Wang Yongchen, a radio broadcaster, still runs Green Earth Volunteers. Ma Jun, of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, started his career as an investigative reporter, writing in 1999 the influential book China’s Water Crisis (also frequently compared to Silent Spring).

It’s not the first independent environmental film by a CCTV personality, either: Cui Yongyuan’s documentary on genetically modified foods led to a high-profile public debate about biosafety and food security in 2013. So, what’s new about "Under the Dome"? In my opinion, at least two things set it apart. First, the sheer volume of the online reaction. In this respect, it is more reminiscent of the online storm in late 2011—during the so-called “Airpocalypse”—when e-petitioners and microbloggers successfully called for the release of real-time information about airborne concentrations of PM2.5, tiny particulates in the air. (Much like Chen Jining’s praise for the documentary—mentioned in Angel Hsu’s contribution above—Xinhua also lauded this “stirring campaign” and “satisfying response.”)

Second, is Chai's film's focus on high-level corruption. "Under the Dome" links China’s toxic smog not only to its dependence on fossil fuels, but also to the special interests that sustain it. The film draws attention to the ways that energy regulators have been captured by the petrochemical industry and notes the downfall of Liu Tienan, former Director of the National Energy Administration, jailed for bribery last year. Has the film avoided censorship by endorsing Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign? It’s probably not so simple. China Digital Times noted a censorship directive sent to editors, saying: “the media must refrain from further promoting” the documentary. The BBC reported not only that the script had been sent to government departments before release, but also that a section questioning China’s “development model” had been removed.

The government has therefore at once praised "Under the Dome" as it has regulated it, invoking the same balancing act that much environmental policymaking has before it. On the one hand, the government needs to be seen to act on popular concern, to make effective environmental laws, and to tackle the corruption that has impeded their enforcement. On the other, its desire to maintain economic growth, to impede advocacy seen to challenge the authority of the Party, and to ensure the greening of the economy proceeds in a top-down, orderly manner.

China’s Silent Spring. That’s what many are calling the new documentary on China’s smog that is flooding the Chinese Internet. Called "Under the Dome, We All Breathe the Same Fate," this 103-minute video is a powerful and moving account of how smog affects the lives of everyone breathing China’s polluted air, how coal and oil burning is causing it, and what people can do about it.

Full disclosure: NRDC provided the filmmakers with substantial coal policy research information and is acknowledged in the credits. Four Chinese NGOs are also noted for their contributions, including Friends of Nature and Ma Jun’s IPE. The video also cites some of the research from NRDC’s report on air pollution from ports and shipping in China. Yet, as Michael Zhao said, one of the main reasons for the runaway success of this video is Chai Jing’s ability to distill reams of complex scientific information and present it in a clear and compelling way.

Like Ma Jun’s "Take a Picture to Locate a Polluter” project, the film also calls upon the public to take action, whether it be reporting pollution, carpooling, or using less cooking oil. This list of simple steps is another key ingredient to the success of the video. Documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth, which do not explain what people can do to make a difference, can leave viewers feeling hopeless and dilute the film’s potential impact.

This documentary and its wildfire popularity may prove to be a watershed moment influencing China’s environmental policy. Over the next two weeks, the Chinese government will convene its two most important annual meetings: full sessions of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC) and the 12th Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The NPC session will also guide the formulation of China’s next Five-Year Economic and Social Development Plan (2016-2020). Chinese citizens bear high hopes that this year’s NPC and CPPCC sessions will deepen recent economic and political reforms. Let’s hope that "Under the Dome" will strengthen China’s political will to clear the air and protect people’s health.

Such has been the impact of "Under the Dome" that the genesis of the project and its relationship to the government also merit some attention. Michael Zhao suggests above that its success is causing the government anxiety. I tend to disagree. The project was officially approved, carefully timed, and brilliantly executed. It generates public support for policies that are already developed. So far, the signs are that the government wishes to calibrate, rather than suppress, the public response.

Why was it so successful? Others have pointed to the high production values, strong storytelling, clear science, and heart-tugging use of children. It has all of these. But the audience are not unaware of air pollution and its effects, and, beyond some scientific detail, they are not being told things they know only too well.

It seems to me that the scale of the response is telling us something else: people are responding to the clear articulation of their own profound fears, and to the appearance of a sincere truth teller in a media landscape customarily dominated by official and untrusted sources.

The response reminds me of the crowds that appear on the death of a popular public figure, grieving as though for a close relative, reliving through a public event past episodes of private grief and personal loss. This is more the mass celebration of a shared narrative than a voyage of discovery.

If Chai Jing has not exactly raised awareness of air pollution—China’s smog is, after all, a lived reality for almost all of China’s citizens—she has channeled it, professionally and brilliantly, into a clear story line that vindicates existing public fears and gives a direction for public frustration.

This is an independent project, but one that seems to have high-level backing: People’s Daily Online co-published it, after all, which could hardly be more official, and even the aggressively nationalist Global Times has given it support. The script was vetted in advance and some passages removed; the targets are sanctioned and the exercise has given the green light to the public to participate in the official effort to ensure that China’s revised environmental laws, and the measures to combat air and water pollution, are implemented better than they have been.

None of this diminishes the importance of the film. On the contrary, I read the implied official support as an encouraging sign that the government is both serious about air pollution and more imaginative than we might have thought in the alliances it is prepared to form to overcome the barriers to effective policy implementation. The National People’s Congress is getting underway this week and the prime minister’s report will be delivered on Thursday—a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the film and to demonstrate government concern.

What do we mean when we wonder if Chai Jing’s documentary is China’s Silent Spring moment?

First, high-level support is key for a book or movie to have a sustained political impact. Silent Spring author Rachel Carson enlisted the help of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an ardent conservationist, who wrote a pamphlet in support of the book’s 1962 publication. Carson cultivated widespread support in the scientific community and attended a White House conference as the book was being serialized in The New Yorker. Chai Jing has some political support. Will it be enough? We don’t know yet.

Second, popular reception is needed to build momentum for change. Mainstream America learned of Carson’s book not through the pages of The New Yorker, but through the mass-market Book-of-the-Month club. The club chose Silent Spring as its October 1962 selection, with Justice Douglas’ pamphlet included in the mailing. The chemical industry’s attacks on the book further fueled popular interest. Widespread media coverage solidified support for Carson. Chai Jing has clearly struck a public chord. Will this be allowed to continue?

The third issue is time. Change is painfully slow. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established only in 1970, eight years after Silent Spring appeared. It took until 1972 before DDT was outlawed in the U.S. These were years of intense activism. The Environmental Defense Fund was founded in 1967 by scientists fighting DDT—the organization has used lawsuits as its main weapons. Will China truly allow, as it promised last year, lawsuits as a way of dealing with environmental challenges?

The bigger issue is whether China’s leadership treats the environmental catastrophe as a threat to its continued rule. Enormous progress has been made in less than a decade. The leadership recognizes that the environment is one of the big challenges it faces but doesn’t regard this as an existential crisis as it does with, say, public security.

Will we see more aggressive action to cut coal use? Until recently, Chinese officials were saying that the country’s use of coal would peak around 2030. At a time when China already is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s carbon emissions, and coal is the key factor in carbon emissions, 2030 is a long way off. Work done by researchers at the Tsinghua-MIT China Energy & Climate Project say a carbon tax could see coal use peak about 2020 without hurting economic growth. This accelerated effort to clean up would see China only emitting one-third as much carbon by 2050 as it would under current policies.

Chai Jing’s courageous documentary stands out, but for it to really matter the movie will need broad political and popular support, along with continued work by lawyers, activists, and businesses and political leaders. Will polluters really be shut down? Will officials lose their jobs and go to jail for environmental violations? Impressive and hopeful as this is, a single movie does not a Silent Spring make. Much hard work lies ahead.

Chai Jing's shock jock-style analysis of China's pollution problem is not so much a ground-breaking piece of journalism as the final proof that the Party is serious about the issue.

In 2013, I spent a month traveling with the photographer Sim Chi Yin through southern Hebei for a piece that eventually appeared in The New Yorker later that year ("In the Air"). What struck me most was the sense that ordinary people really got it—they knew their region had become one of the most polluted in the world, and in their own way they were pushing for change. One of the people Chi Yin and I spent days and days with was a second-generation steelworker named Han Zhigang. He had started an outdoor activity club so his daughter could go out to the mountains and get fresh air, and was building gliders to fly off the Taihang Mountains. One of the club's member was a member of the Handan Party School—the Communist Party's training wing. She was a really smart cadre in her early 30s, also with a young daughter, and she was highly critical of Party policies. She said the local Party school had already begun training cadres in pollution control and told them that they would be held to concrete standards. Already, you could see signs of improvement (mainly because the bar was so low): piles of coal now had to be fenced in so dust couldn't blow around so easily, and filters were being installed (and used). Within a few months, Xi Jinping had announced that cadres would be judged by metrics other than economic growth, and leaders also promised to spent hundreds of billions cleaning up that region.

I'm not defending China's system, but when it works, this is how it works. Obviously this way of doing things has its limitations. As Chai Jing noted, one problem is that it's harder to take on politically connected vested interests. Hansteel, for example, seemed like a model company inside the city limits of Handan, but it had simply pushed its dirtiest coking factories to the foothills of the Taihang Mountains, ruining villages and good cropland. (You can see some of this in the photo essay by Chi Yin in The New Yorker.) Seeing how Hansteel had skirted the regulations made me skeptical that a mainly top-down approach would work in the long run.

What you can also see in the last few photos, though, is that for cities like Handan, the pollution has brought real prosperity. For these once-impoverished parts of China, the past few decades have been a golden era, when jobs were plenty and the local government spent lavishly on parks, civic buildings, and schools—something analogous to the dirty decades of the 19th century when grimy cities like Manchester rose up. Solving China's pollution problem will ultimately require a massive de-industrialization of this region, something local people knew very well, and it made them uneasy. Foreigners often say it's the Party that fears unrest, but in a way the Party is reflecting legitimate concerns about structural unemployment—think of the trouble developed countries like the U.S. and Germany have had in dealing with their rust belts, and multiply that by several factors.

This is why I'm hesitant to see Chai Jing's piece as something similar to Silent Spring. What we're seeing is not the rise of a civil society-based environmental movement, which is implied by such a comparison. Instead, we're seeing local pressure that the government is coopting. When I went to Handan, for example, I asked environmental NGOs ahead of time who their contact people were in southern Hebei. None, including Greenpeace, Friends of Nature, or Greengrants (a NGO that provides seed money for local initiatives) had any local contacts. This showed me that the consciousness that was developing in this region was not the result of organizing, but a much more amorphous rise in concern that, to some degree, the Party is listening to. In fact, I'd go further and say that environmental concerns are probably more effectively channeled into China's political system when they are not organized (especially not by foreign NGOs). Such pressure makes the government nervous about civil society competitors. Again, this isn't an ideal system, but it's the system that China has and this is why Chai Jing could make her video.

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 in the Communist Party’s mouthpiece Xinhua Daily, 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 People's Bank of China, the nation'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 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. [This contribution to the Conversation is excerpted from a fuller post at ChinaChange.org — The Editors]

Last Saturday evening, my research assistant (a wonderful JD student raised and educated in China) sent me a message: “This is a link to a documentary directed by Chai Jing (柴静). It has raised public concern about air pollution.” In perhaps the understatement of the year, she added: “Many Chinese people have been watching it.”

The link was, of course, to Chai's remarkable documentary “Under the Dome.” This is a video so viral that even American Vogue has already blogged about it (next to a headline proclaiming: “Kim Kardashian West and Jared Leto Take the Peroxide Plunge Front Row at Balmain!”). Discussion of the video has dominated Chinese social media for the past week. The new head of China’s environmental ministry said in his first press conference that he had texted Chai to thank her for making the film.

Yet, other parts of the Chinese bureaucracy have signaled concern about the burst of popular support for the video. Webpages on the official People’s Daily site featuring the film and an interview with Chai have been pulled down in the last few days (see here). One government authority has apparently issued an order to media not to “hype” the video and to regulate public opinion on the matter. By this morning (March 6), the video has been pulled from major Chinese video websites such as Youku, Tudou, QQ, Sohu, et al. As Sam Geall has suggested, this mixed official reaction to the video highlights one of the biggest challenges to what Premier Li Keqiang has called China’s “war on pollution.” The official policy response to China’s pollution problem over the last decade has primarily involved top-down, bureaucratic measures—state control over its minions. This has included subjecting local officials to more stringent environmental targets and administrative orders to install pollution control equipment and shut down older, outdated industrial facilities. These measures have worked to some extent, but have also been fraught with implementation challenges common to top-down, target-based approaches (evasion, data falsification, etc.; just look at the Atlanta school testing scandal).

Environmental regulators have, on the other hand, placed an enormous bet on the role of transparency and public participation in solving these implementation problems. The newly amended Environmental Protection Law incorporates a major section on open information, public supervision, and public interest litigation. Give the public the tools, the theory goes, and they will be allies in the fight against pollution. Citizens would thus serve as “fire alarms,” alerting authorities to problems and reducing the cost of monitoring China’s vast landscape of industrial facilities.

But public supervision only works when citizens are given sufficient space to run. Control them too much and the system breaks down. The conflict here is akin to the debate over China’s “bird-cage economy,” transplanted to the sphere of risk regulation (“The cage must not be too small, lest the bird suffocate, but there had to be a cage to contain the bird, otherwise it would fly away.”). The public reaction to Chai Jing’s video shows that citizens are more than ready to fly. The question now is just how big the cage will be.

Chai Jing’s TED-style talk has sparked an unprecedented discussion on China’s Internet since last weekend. By some estimates, one in three Chinese netizens have watched some part of her two-hour long documentary.

As the Chinese censors quietly take steps to erase the viral video, other discussions about Chai’s data problem and even personal life have also emerged and distracted many from reflecting on a daunting issue for China and for President Xi Jinping.

Angel was right in reminding us what causes lung cancer. However, I think rather than trying to explain the complex science behind the evolving puzzle of our environment, Chai succeeded in raising awareness about bad air in a country which has, in her own words, been taking such poor air quality for granted.

This is never easy. Anyone who reads Lu Xun understands how difficult it is to spark such a debate concerning public interest in China. Whatever censors have done to Chai’s documentary now is irrelevant. The people know what’s going on, and that knowledge will not fade even as the documentary disappears.

Chai Jing’s motivation is clear and commonly shared by many young parents. “Do I really want my daughter to live in such an environment in the future?” she ponders. If this were said in a separate context, the person would perhaps run into trouble. Chai skillfully trod the line between being accepted and being hard-hitting. Very few journalists in China today dare to take this approach, and fewer still succeed.

The timing, of course, is interesting, too. Chai’s groundbreaking documentary was released just a few of days before China resumes its national legislature's “two sessions” in Beijing, arguably the most important political gatherings each year.

It’s worthwhile paying close attention to what kind of environment-related issues are being discussed there and how they are reported. I would be reluctant to make any prediction about Chinese politics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if delegates propose some more ambitious ideas to significantly improve air quality, which until very recently existed on paper only.

If that’s the case, Chai’s contribution is far more important than the online discussions about her post-CCTV career transition, not to mention petty innuendo about how her personal life made this documentary less trustworthy.

It would instead suggest something quite different about today’s Chinese politics: policy advocates are more active than before, and there may yet be more Chai Jings in the future to advocate for issues that remain divided among the country’s lawmakers.

Lastly, Chai’s light touch on the ruling party probably doesn’t match the heroic image many people hold dear. But the sad truth is that inspirational heroes of that sort wouldn’t able to get their messages across in China, not to mention spark such a nationwide soul-searching.

It’s probably time to rethink how to do advocacy in China today.