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China Premier Pledges Tougher Enforcement to Protect Environment

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, center, smiles as he answers a reporter's question during a press conference at the end of the National People's Congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, March 15, 2015.

Before China's annual legislative meetings in Beijing, the documentary Under the Dome went viral online.

But one day after the National People’s Congress opened it was ordered to be taken offline, after more than 200 million people had watched it. China's newly appointed environmental minister had even praised the film.

The documentary by former state-run television reporter Chai Jing looks at the health impacts of China’s massive smog problem, the challenges environmental authorities face in enforcing the law, and how state-run enterprises, particularly energy companies, are part of the problem.

During a news conference Sunday at the end of the annual legislative meetings, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang Li was asked what he made of claims in the film about big oil companies and whether they are an obstacle to environmental enforcement.

Pollution is a concern

Without mentioning the film, Li said tackling environmental pollution, especially smog, is a concern that is high on all people’s mind. He said the government is determined to tackle the problem and has taken steps to bring that about, he added the effort has fallen short of the public’s expectations.

The annual press conference after the National People’s Congress is tightly scripted and its questions are pre-selected.

Li said under this year's Environmental Protection Law, authorities are committed to making sure those who contribute to the problem are held legally accountable.

He added that all acts of illegal production and emissions will be brought to justice, regardless of who the offenders might be. He said the government needs to make businesses that illegally emit and dump pay a price too heavy to bear.

The general message of the documentary appears to dovetail nicely with efforts authorities are making to address the problem, but it is not clear why it was blocked or the issue not mentioned publicly until the final news conference. CCTV, the state broadcaster where Chai Jing used to work, has made no mention of the film.

China’s newly appointed Environmental Minister Chen Jining praised the film, but at his first news conference last week, it appeared authorities had taken steps to make sure no questions about the film came up.

But on the sidelines of China’s annual political meetings some have spoken about the film.

Wake up call

In comments to reporters before it was banned, former National Basketball Association star Yao Ming, a representative at the annual meetings, said he had watched the film and was thankful for the wake up call Chai Jing had given everyone. Yao added the film had made public the feelings in many people’s hearts.

Chinese director Chen Kaige called the film honest and real, adding that voices like Chai Jing’s and reminders about the pollution problem are needed in society.

In an interview with VOA, a respiratory expert and representative at the meetings, Zhong Nanshan, said Chai Jing’s film takes a good look at the issues of where smog comes from, how harmful it is, what is being done to address the problem, and the obstacles faced.

Zhong said the full impact of pollution on the body is still not clear, but what is clear is that pollution is extremely harmful. He said the documentary raises some good questions to think about and is inspiring.

Zhong has long been outspoken about China’s air pollution problems but is best known for exposing the government cover-up of the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003. Zhong previously said that China’s smog is even scarier than SARS.