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China is letting people talk about a popular pollution documentary—unless they blame the government

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
Talk all you want—as long as you don’t assign blame.
This article is more than 2 years old.

Under the Dome, an impassioned documentary on Chinese air pollution by mainland investigative journalist Chai Jing, has been viewed hundreds of millions of times in the last week, but Chinese censors are now drawing a line: Any discussion that blames the country’s environmental horrors on the  central government is strictly off limits.

Chinese politicians, including environment minister Chen Jining, had initially been welcoming of the film, which tells a persuasive and deeply personal story about the human impact of China’s air pollution. As Quartz has reported, state-run news organizations were directed not to “hype” the documentary further, according to China Digital Times, which monitors leaked censorship instructions.

But now censors are cracking down on discussions of the film on the Sina Weibo microblogging service, according to data compiled by the University of Hong Kong. The Weiboscope Censorship Index, compiled by researchers at the university’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC), monitors the number of Weibo posts deleted by censors. As the graph below shows, the total number of deleted posts has been rising steadily since the film’s release on Feb. 28.

Assistant Professor King-wa Fu, a social media researcher at the JMSC, said the pattern of censorship matched the release of the film, with the number of deleted posts getting steeper as the documentary gained traction on social media.

Part of the rise in Weibo censorship can be linked to the lead-up to the National Party Congress that kicked off this week, according to Fu. But he noted that 15% of all censored Weibo comments captured by Weiboscope from the first two days of March carried at least one of the following terms: Chai Jing, smog, blue sky, dome, air, and CNPC—the acronym for the state-owned oil and gas company, China National Petroleum Corporation.

“People who then link it back to the government, then they start to get deleted,” said Fu. “In particular, the energy sector is very sensitive. When they (Weibo users) start to cross the line, that triggers the censorship.”

One deleted Weibo post, translated into English, reflects on the government’s perceived environmental sacrifice for the sake of economic growth.

“Regarding environmental protection, mark my words: if the smog is gone, it won’t be due to effective governance, but a great depression,” wrote one user.

Another took a cynical swipe at the notably clear skies that the NPC typically brings.

“Two consecutive days with a blue sky. Fantasizers call it ‘Chai Jing Blue,’” this Weibo user wrote, in reference to the film’s journalist. “As I trudged against the wind I remembered, all the blowhards are gathering in Beijing these few days.”

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