Review & Outlook
Cracks in Beijing’s Dome
A documentary reveals splits within the Communist Party.
March 10, 2015 7:40 p.m. ET
Citizens of modern democracies often take for granted the muckraking journalism that goes along with a free press. Yet for most Chinese such reporting is new and exhilarating, which might explain the phenomenal success of a video calling attention to the scandal of China’s polluted skies.
Viewed by hundreds of millions of Chinese in the week before it was censored, “Under the Dome” was supposedly produced by private citizen Chai Jing with her own money. That’s unlikely. Ms. Chai, a former state-television journalist, released her polished jeremiad against smog on the website of official media outlets such as the People’s Daily at the most sensitive time of the political calendar, days before the annual session of the country’s rubber-stamp parliament.
The following day, China’s newly appointed Minister of Environmental Protection, Chen Jining, endorsed Ms. Chai’s work. The video contains interviews with officials from the Environment Ministry, National Development and Reform Commission and the Party’s Finance Affairs Office. Scholars at Peking University contributed background material.
All of this suggests that Ms. Chai had official backing in her attempt to increase public pressure for environmental regulation. But neither is the video the product of the Party’s Propaganda Department. On the same day Minister Chen praised Ms. Chai, the censors ordered state media to stop covering her. A few days later, the video was scrubbed from the Chinese Internet altogether.
Ms. Chai didn’t question the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Yet she laid the blame for the degradation of the environment squarely at the foot of the government, which fails to enforce its own laws. She also attacked the standards of giant state-owned petroleum companies, which enjoy equal political status to government ministries and effectively regulate themselves.
“Under the Dome” shows that an element within the Party wants to overcome resistance to environmental regulation by appealing directly to the public. That’s a positive development. But it brings to mind a 1988 episode in which reformers within the Party produced “River Elegy,” a television series that encouraged debate about China’s political development.
Hardliners suppressed it after a first airing. That leadership split over political reform contributed to the rise and violent suppression of the student democracy movement in 1989.
It’s always possible that supreme leader Xi Jinping and his allies backed Ms. Chai’s venture.
The video may boost his efforts to reform the economy and root out the faction of deposed Politburo member Zhou Yongkang. A push for cleaner air fits his emphasis on quality of life instead of GDP figures. Then again, if Mr. Xi has to look outside the propaganda apparatus to advance his agenda with such a risky gambit, that means he is unable to overcome internal opposition.
“Under the Dome” is a reminder that these internal divisions persist. It is all the more threatening to the Party since it exposes its vulnerability to bottom up challenges that encourage citizen activism. That, in the long run, can only end with the Party’s undoing.