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China Halts Access to Popular Documentary on Smog

FILE - With a yellow smog alert in effect, a woman rides her electric bicycle along a street amid thick haze in Chiping county, Shandong province, China, Jan. 16, 2015.

China has blocked access online to a documentary about the country’s massive smog problem after hundreds of millions viewed the film and it became a social media sensation.

The nearly two-hour documentary, "Under the Dome," was self-funded by former state media reporter Chai Jing. It has sparked widespread debate and even had an impact on the stock market during the week, with clean technologies seeing a big jump on Monday, the first day of trading after the film started circulating.

But shortly after its release, censors quickly moved in to limit discussion of the film on news websites. They ordered that discussions instead be focused on developments at the so-called twin sessions, top-level political meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

A directive from Shanghai’s propaganda department, obtained by the website China Digital Times and published on its miniature blog, which tracks censorship orders, said, “Media and websites of all types and levels (including Weibo, WeChat, and news portals) must absolutely discontinue coverage of the documentary 'Under the Dome' and its creator, as well as reports, commentaries, interviews and special topics that concern or extend to this film and its creator.”

The video, however, remained online for most of the week. But by Friday, it started to disappear. It was not immediately clear why it took so long for the film to be taken down or whether there was some division among the government’s censorship organs about how to respond.

Praise and silence

China’s newly appointed environmental mnister, Chen Jining, had praised the film shortly after it was released a week ago. State media had carried reports of him comparing Chai to Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring. Carson’s book and her writings have been credited with giving a boost to the global environmental movement.

Chen said he had watched the entire movie and called it significant in how it raised public awareness of the environment and concerns about the health impact of environmental problems.

On Saturday, however, at his first news conference, Chen made no mention of the film. The briefing took place on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress and lasted for more than one hour. While Chen was asked 11 questions, not one mentioned the film or its censorship. Most questions came from domestic journalists, and only three were said to be with foreign media outlets.

Still, Chen was asked several pointed questions about China’s smog problems and other forms of pollution, and about corruption within his own government agency.

Massive problems

Chen admitted that despite progress, China’s pollution problems were still massive and too much for its environment to withstand. He said he would make a blacklist for those who violated the law and ensure that more egregious offenders would face justice.

He also made it clear that 2015 would be the year of enforcement of China’s newly enacted environment protection law.

"We don’t want our [environmental protection law] to be just a piece of paper, but rather we need to make it into [a law] that has teeth of steel,” he said. “And the key to doing this is enforcement and implementation” of the law.

Chen said the contradictions of China’s environmental and developmental challenges were “like nothing else in the history of the world.”

“China cannot overreact or cannot be expected to move too fast in addressing its environmental problems,” he said. “But even more than that, we cannot turn a blind eye or do nothing, because [China’s environmental problems] are directly linked to the future well-being of our nation.”

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