Environmental Protesters Arrested as China’s Viral Air Pollution Film Disappears From View

Is the censorship a sign of struggle over environmental reforms or a routine crackdown on public dissent?

A woman in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on a polluted day. (Photo: Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters)

Mar 10, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

The air pollution video that went viral on China’s social media networks last week has been belatedly banned by the government, which is reportedly detaining environmental protesters as well.

Police on Monday arrested activists in a northern China city who wore facemasks and carried anti–air pollution signs, according to The Telegraph. The protest was part of a growing wave of public agitation about air pollution that has swept the country since Feb. 28, the day investigative journalist Chai Jing released her film Under the Dome.

The documentary, which had been watched by hundreds of millions of people in China before the government took it offline, explores the smog crisis in China and its impact on public health. In the film, Chai blames oil and gas companies, automakers, and other heavy industries for creating the problem, while government environmental regulators admit on camera that they have no power to stop the pollution.

Initially the video seemed to gain a measure of official support: China’s new environment minister, Chen Jining, texted Chai his congratulations for her work a day after the feature-length video went online. But it also attracted public denouncements from officials, reported The New York Times, including some in powerful private and state-owned industries.

By March 4, major Chinese news outlets had begun removing articles published about the video, reported USA Today.

Then on March 6, the video itself disappeared from Chinese video websites, according to the Times. The government’s flip-flop from approval to censorship may have reflected an internal struggle between pro-environmental and more conservative Communist Party officials for control of the county’s anti-pollution regulations, the Times reported.

But it might also have been part of a broader stifling of public dissent during the current National People’s Congress, a yearly meeting of lawmakers that typically acts as a rubber stamp for party policies.

The Financial Times reported on March 8 that police had arrested five feminist activists before they could go to a planned demonstration against sexual harassment of women in the subways; and that police had also prevented journalists from talking to relatives of passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 who were protesting for answers to the mystery of the missing airliner.