March 5, 2015, by Tony Hong

Watching “Under the Dome” from a Chinese Communication Perspective

By Angela Wang Dan,
PhD Student from Hong Kong Baptist University.

On the last day of February, 2015, former CCTV investigative report anchor, Chai Jing, released a documentary on Chinese air pollution issue which stirred up hot debates. 48 hours after “Under the Dome”, the documentary, delivered online for free, it has received over 30 million clicking rate. The documentary is reformative to the normative concern of Chinese environmental problems as well as its communication pattern.

Both supportive and negative comments on the documentary overflow the internet sphere. Optimists saw the hope of solving China’s long existing environment problem as this 104 minutes film not only harshly pointed out the rudimentary causes of China’s air pollution—industrialization, but also the ineffectiveness and irresponsibility of the country’s public sectors such as the national pillar industry Sinopec and local environmental protection bureaus. What’s more, Chai’s presentation as a mother of a lung-illness newly born daughter successfully arouses public resonance and sympathy on the air pollution. However, what have overly occupied our online sphere are pessimists’ opinions. Although Chai claimed herself in an interview with the People’s Daily that the documentary is independent from external sponsorship, the interview’ access to top government officials, prestigious scientists and leaders of Sinopec, plus Zhou Yongkang’s, former President of the China Petroleum, crack down, leave us sufficient space to doubt the “pusher” behind. Another blazing contention lies in Chai’s tactical suggestion on the correlation between her ill baby and PM 2.5. Numerous netizens delved out Chai Jing’s smoking history and affiliated malicious gossip of her past romance, which blurred the ultimate purpose of her documentary.

Vicious verbal attack of an opinion leader is not a new phenomenon. There are two reasons to explain this. First is due to the lack of democratic sense, which is a historical reason. The Internet brings relatively more political opportunities to Chinese netizens. The appearance of an online opinion leader follows the logic of representative democracy. From totalitarianism to authoritarianism, Chinese citizens have never had the freedom to express their own demands nor the right to vote. Chai Jing as have many other opinion leaders endeavored to speak for the public. But besides supportive voices, she received more wicked critiques. Generally, there is a pattern the Chinese public uses to frame negative comments about opinion leaders. First is the use of conspiracy theories, i.e. the opinion leader must receive the central government or a commercial tycoon’s support. Second is the dreadful professional comments from the opinion leader’s counterparts, i.e. the data is not accurate, or the fact is wrong. Last is what Chinese people called “black PR”, whose job is to deliberately ruin opinion leaders’ reputations by spreading gossips, either partially or not true. This pattern has existed in Chai Jing’s case. Another reason for the public attack of an opinion leader is due to the rural cultural root of the nation. As the old Chinese saying goes “people fear becoming famous just as pigs fear becoming fat” (人怕出名,猪怕壮). In this cultural logic, no one should lead and no one should follow. Everyone is the same and should not disturb each other. Just like the utopia society Lao Tze depicted where people live peacefully and independently with the chickens in their neighbor’s yard fighting.

Nevertheless, it would be too cursive to merely understand Chai’s documentary as a former investigative journalist’s monologue purely for the public interest. As Yang Guobin (2009) summarized that the Chinese contention should hold the features of political tolerance and public resonance, “Under the Dome” was released at the right timing politically and within a politically tolerant atmosphere. I am not arguing the nature of the documentary as a form of contention. However, its content of criticizing the leading national companies was indeed critical and reformative and it does become a trigger for netizens’ political participation. In the season of awaiting China’s National Congress to be held on the 5th March, 2015 and the newly rectified and enacted environment law supported by President Xi Jinping, Chai’s documentary helped the government to frame the public opinion agenda perfectly. Additionally, the discourse of the documentary at the ending part goes back to the old propaganda cliché of appealing for united public power to solve social problems which is caused by political faults. The prevailing hit rate proves its success. These are major reasons netizens believe that Chai was backed by the Chinese government. Given Chai Jing’s investigative journalist background and reputation of professionalism, the government pusher guess is not immensely convincing. If we have to give a definition to the essence of “Under the Dome”, I will argue it is produced out of a former professional journalist’s self-censorship. Meanwhile she did a thorough investigative report on PM 2.5, she helped shape public opinion. Power shapes contention. Investigative journalism should follow the same logic as well. As proved by communication scholars, the Chinese official media and governmental propaganda enjoyed little credibility, especially top-down style documentary for thought work education purposes, which will in return influence CCP’s legitimacy. Chai Jing’s position as an independent journalist from the grass root fits the gap wisely. Her role as a mother and citizen who suffers from PM 2.5 adds more credit to the persuasive mechanism. What’s more, the genre of TED-talk form and emotional laden performance brings more intimacy and interaction with the audience. The hot debates and comments online, in return, provide the government a necessary database of public opinion. The old cliché in the end of the documentary not only disguises the real trigger of China’s environment problem, but also lead the general public to share the faults of the government.

It is difficult for us to draw a clear link between Chai Jing and the government. However, no matter what relation they are sharing, “Under the Dome” brings reform to both Chinese environmental concerns as well as its communication pattern. If, Chai somehow really received support from the government, then “Under the Dome” will represent a reformative transition for the government’s agenda setting mechanism, from top-down to independent/grass root media worker in China. If not, the newly established communication genre which attracts great public attention may render more normative documentaries like “Under the Dome” and persuade the audience to burden the responsibility to make changes from themselves.

Yang, Guobin. (2009). The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. Columbia University Press.

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