China’s new environmental minister, Chen Jining, has been described as the nation’s green dream. He’s a dedicated scientist who appears to have the political backing to start reversing China’s assaults on its water, air and soil.
But at a news conference Saturday, it became clear that Beijing won’t allow Chen to speak freely on topics deemed sensitive. His handlers made sure that no reporters asked about an anti-pollution documentary that recently went viral on China’s government-filtered internet, only to be quickly censored.
Environmentalists were disappointed by the week’s quick turn of events, especially since harnessing the energy of citizens will be essential if China is to clean up its environment.
“Censor this or not, one thing is clear: The smog is not going away,” Li Yan, the climate and energy manager for Greenpeace in Beijing, said late Saturday. “The public demand (for action) is not going away.”
The documentary, “Under the Dome,” was posted on China’s equivalent of YouTube Feb. 28 and quickly racked up more than 200 million page views. Produced by former state television reporter Chai Jing, “Under the Dome” is a passionate and personal examination of how pollution threatens people’s lives, including that of Chai’s young daughter.
Many netizens were stunned the government allowed the documentary to be viewed so widely and praised officially. The day after it was released, Chen said the documentary reflected “growing public concern over environmental protection and threats to human health.” He compared it to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book on the effect of pesticides on wildlife in the United States that is widely credited with starting the environmental movement.
But by Tuesday, government censors had issued orders for all state-run media to remove links to “Under the Dome” or anything related to it, according to a report in China Digital Times, a website that tracks China’s internet.
Why did the government reverse course? It’s not entirely clear, but some analysts have speculated that Beijing felt threatened by online comments about the documentary. Chai Jing was careful not to heap blame on the government for China’s environmental ills, but online commenters were not so gentle. The online criticism may have been especially embarrassing given that the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, kicked off its annual meeting in Beijing on Thursday.
On Saturday, Chinese and foreign journalists packed Chen’s press conference, with some wanting to ask him about “Under the Dome.” A moderator called on 12 journalists to ask questions. Nearly all worked for Chinese state media, and none asked about the documentary.
After the news conference, several journalists swarmed Chen to ask him the question left unaddressed, but he deflected all queries.
Chen, 51, officially started his duties a week ago and is thought to be a prime position to rise in the administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping. An environmental engineer and product of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, he was promoted in 2012 to be president of Tsinghua. Some analysts think he could be a candidate for the government’s Politburo and State Council in the next three years.
Until Saturday, Chen seemed to enjoy mixing it up with the media, unlike his predecessor, Zhou Shengxian. During his eight years as environmental minister, Zhou shunned news conferences and presided over a period when smog smothered eastern China. Other environmental problems mounted. Three-fourths of the nation’s lakes and rivers are now severely polluted, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. According to a report last year, one fifth of the nation’s arable farmland is severely contaminated.
On Saturday, Chen made clear China faces daunting challenges in managing the tradeoffs between economic growth and a cleaner environment. This nation of nearly 1.4 billion is dependent on smog-belching coal-powered plants for most of its energy. As Chen spoke, the Beijing’s air quality index hovered at around 250, or about 10 times higher than considered safe.
“We are facing an unprecedented conflict between development and environment (unknown) in human history,” he told reporters.
Chen also became animated when asked about plans to shift many of eastern China’s most polluting industries to the less populated but still ecologically sensitive deserts of western China. He said the nation is “entering a crucial time” and needs to start repairing environmental damage instead of shifting it elsewhere.
“We need to ensure all the renovation measures are in place, and make public of the results,” said Chen. In protecting sensitive areas of western China, he added, “we welcome supervision from the media.”
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.