China’s internet censors strike again, and this time, the country’s already deteriorating environment becomes the victim of their restrictive policies. A newly released documentary, “Under the Dome,” instantly went viral on the internet as the most thorough investigation of China’s pollution problems. In its first week the documentary attracted more than twenty millions viewers and became a trending topic on social media. Unfortunately, the government banned the film from all major Chinese websites the following week.
The problem is not so much that the Chinese government does not support environmental activism. Rather, this incident shows that escape and avoidance have already become the government’s habitual way to cope with citizens’ complaints and petitions. Officials are used to censoring inconvenient issues, but this response is becoming increasingly ineffective and unsustainable.
Although most officials nominally support the fight against pollution, they are far more enthusiastic about boosting economic growth and would readily compromise environmental preservation for a higher GDP. At first, China’s newly appointed environmental minister, Chen Jining, equated “Under the Dome” with Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and praised it as “a respectable effort to raise awareness about environmental protection and public health.” Yet as soon as the film’s overwhelming popularity became an inconvenience for the government’s daily operation, China’s notorious censorship system kicked in, first ordering media to downplay the film and then removing it altogether. This kind of evasiveness shows how Chinese censorship has tainted environmental protection with political corruption. Censors’ indeterminate and constantly shifting attitude toward environmental protection is an accurate reflection of the incessant battle between government officials and the public will.
Chen Jining’s initial appreciation for the film’s social value indicates that the government did not ban the film because of the film’s content. “Under the Dome” became problematic only after its rising popularity caused many citizens to call for immediate government action. However, China’s main focus remains economic growth, and the government does not want to shift its attention to environmental concerns. Reluctant to actually prioritize environmental protection as a major party platform, the government uses censorship as an alternative approach to appease public anger and subdue citizens. Officials hide behind the shield of press censorship and shut down substantial discussion as a real solution to social controversies. They expect people to willingly give up their freedom of judgment and passively accept the party’s five-year plan for the nation.
However, this way of approaching problems underestimates the energy and vigor of Chinese civil society. The ban actually reignites the discussion about the illegitimacy of China’s censorship system, and people continue to watch the film through illegal websites. This reaction forces officials to recognize that in this internet age they can only repress talks about particular events, and are powerless when facing continuous and persistent criticism. Although the Chinese political system is not based on popular elections, it has no intention of declaring war on its own people. Rather, its restrictive character comes mainly from its hope that the country can achieve national rejuvenation and raise its international status without much resistance from its people. As China becomes increasingly globalized, regulators of public opinion have already realized the impossibility of monopolizing information and have started to grant the public far more freedom than before. Now that the government’s lax enforcement of pollution laws has become common knowledge among citizens, officials more frequently admit their own incompetence and tend to leave related criticism uncensored. Environmental protection is only one of many instances in which isolating the population from outside information no longer works.
This new latitude for public discussion exposes Chinese citizens to more diverse and international perspectives on the country’s political order, prompting them to reconsider their previous familiarity with censorship. People’s growing anguish about the government’s restriction on individual liberty has itself turned into a potential source of social unrest. Many senior party officials worry that continuing their strict censorship policies actually acts against the party’s best interests. As a result, censorship itself has now become the object of political scrutiny. The time will soon come when China’s censorship system creates more friction for government operation than actual social disputes. To avoid a more severe blow to the government as a whole, officials have to give up extreme censorship as a handy tool of manipulation and deflection. Instead, they must face the complexity of social problems and make an actual attempt to resolve them.
Controversy around “Under the Dome” may soon die out, but the ongoing conflict between Chinese censors and the public will continue to play out. Adjustments within the political system are indispensable to maintain the government’s unique socialist characteristics. Only when officials fully realize the necessity for them to live in harmony with the general population can the Chinese society raises itself to a new level of prosperity.