Greenpeace Podcast: Why a Chinese Air Pollution Video Went Viral

by MaryAmbrose

June 11, 2015

The factory is located in the northern suburb of Xuzhou, Liguo Town, on the border of Jiangsu Province and Shandong Province. Weishan Lake is to the west. A primary school and a kindergarten are situated next to the plant, separated only by a narrow creek. The school and kindergarten suffer from serious air pollution, and students have to wear pollution masks in class.

© Lu Guang / Greenpeace

Everyone who’s ever made a video dreams of it being seen by millions. Only a magical few hit the right mix of topic, timing and skill. This spring, a documentary came out about air pollution in China that had that mix.

Under the Dome” was produced and narrated by Chai Jing, an investigative reporter formerly with China’s national television network. It opens with her talking about being pregnant, worrying about her baby’s health and realizing she has cause for alarm: the air she’s breathing.

In fact, just this week the World Health Organization said air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk facing our planet.

That’s one reason this documentary was so popular: the topic is very hot on Chinese social media. Though the film wasn’t exposing brand new info or made with super whizzy techniques, within days of it being posted it had been watched by more than 200 million people. That’s one-third of Chinese Internet users. Imagine a third of the people with Internet access in the U.S. watching a video about pollution! Coverage of the viral video was global.

But within a week, “Under the Dome” had been taken down and was unavailable to anyone inside China.

The story of this video (it’s up! it’s down!) gives us a peek into how the Chinese government views environmental policy. In this month’s podcast, Jue Wang at the Greenpeace office in Beijing told me the story of the video. It was a mix of Chai Jing’s fame, her access to powerful politicians and how competitive they are. Also the topic is hot because information about it is repressed, largely due to China’s reliance on coal, a big air polluter.

Jue Wang even admitted to being a little bit jealous because the Greenpeace office has worked on this issue for ages, done studies and more but is often dismissed. Then this powerful woman gets all these views and likes for a video which is not terribly special! One of Greenpeace China’s videos about air pollution is the dreamy Smog Journeys.

That brings us to our environmental word of the month: particulates. Smog is full of particulate matter. The Air Quality Index measures the particulates in the air. Apparently, in Beijing people will say to each other, “Hey, you want to hit the park this weekend? The AQI (Air Quality Index) is supposed to go under 100.”

Particulates—as head of research for Greenpeace USA, all round brainiac and good egg Mark Floegel explained—are the stuff that gets up your nose or in your throat when you breath. If you’re breathing onion soup those are bits of onion, that’s fine, but if it’s particulates, your eyes run and you may start coughing as the phlegm in your throat tries to protect you.

Staying in the Air … Dragonflies: More Than a Pretty Pair of Wings

Also on our podcast this month, we speak with Dr. Jessica Ware. Ware is an evolutionary biologist with the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers University and a member of the World Dragonfly Association and Dragonfly Society of the Americas (I bet they have great T-shirts). Among other things, she studies dragonflies which she says are often called ‘climate canaries’ because what you see first in dragonflies is what you will see later in bats, beetles and even fish. (I would link you to lots of dragonfly research but most of it was too complicated for me to understand so if you are smart enough to get it, you can probably find it better than I can.)

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