March 2, 2015 / 11:39 AM / 3 years ago

New film on China's pollution sparks debate, seen as milestone

Birds fly past the chimney of a thermal power plant as China's national flag flutters in a suburb in Shanghai January 9, 2015. REUTERS/Aly Song/Files

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Could “Under the Dome”, Chinese journalist Chai Jing’s new documentary about pollution, become China’s “Silent Spring”, the 1962 book that spurred the development of the U.S. environmental movement?

Since it was released online on Saturday, the film has been viewed more than 150 million times and has sparked a national debate on environmental problems.

“Under the Dome”, which explains air pollution in personal, straight-forward terms, was well-timed: this week China’s National People’s Congress, the country’s parliament, holds its annual meeting.

China’s environment minister, Chen Jining, drew parallels between Chai’s film and “Silent Spring”, the ground-breaking book by American journalist Rachel Carson.

“This is a remarkable milestone,” Li Yan, Beijing-based climate and energy campaign manager for environmental group Greenpeace, said of the film.

Chai was a well-known journalist on state-run television before making the documentary.

Environmental awareness has been increasing in China, especially since air pollution levels in Beijing hit record highs in January 2013, a phenomenon dubbed the “airpocalypse”.

The documentary has touched a national nerve.

“The difference is in the delivery,” said Peggy Liu, chairwoman of Shanghai-based environmental advocacy group JUCCCE, noting Chai’s storytelling abilities.

“It’s not that people aren’t expressing these messages already.”

The film begins with Chai Jing’s experience as a pregnant woman and then a mother of a child born with a benign tumor, which had to be removed. It looks at China’s pollution, how it affects health, and what can be done about it.

Greenpeace’s Li Yan said Chai’s documentary and the public debate it has generated could help the environmental ministry garner the resources it needs to implement a new, tougher environmental protection law that raises penalties for polluters.

But obstacles to clearing China’s skies are daunting.

The country is heavily reliant on coal and car ownership is growing fast.

State-owned enterprises, which dominate heavy industry, can at times be more powerful than their regulators.

The film might prove a boon to other industries.

Sales of air purifiers at the Blue Air store on 3c.tmall.com, an online home electronics shop owned by Internet giant Alibaba, more than doubled the day after the documentary was released.

Wang Zhen, a public relations executive in Shanghai, said the documentary finally convinced her to buy an air purifier.

“I really need to protect my family, that’s the main bottom line,” she said.

Reporting by Alexandra Harney; additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Robert Birsel

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