The Inconsistency of Media Censorship:
China as a Supposed Global Leader of Environmental Justice
Ever since the election of Xi Jinping in 2012, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tightened the grip on media censorship, allowing the CCP to shape narratives about environmental issues and create the image of China as a global environmental leader. Initially, censorship of journalism intended to maintain ignorance around the issues of air pollution and smog amongst China’s citizens. In 2015, Chai Jing released her documentary “Under the Dome” and the detrimental effects of the environment became more apparent in the public sphere. However, the Chinese government resumed its censorship of negative environmental journalism, only allowing Chinese journalists to vaguely praise the enactment of new environmental policies with little political context or accurate empirical data. Ultimately, censorship remained a mechanism through which Chinese journalism shaped the narrative of both climate change and the successes of Chinese government policy. In turn, Chinese media surrounding environmental policy aimed to minimize skepticism, maximize support for environmental policies, preserve stability within the Chinese population and maintain rapid economic growth.
Before the debut of “Under the Dome”, the government had suppressed articles that would contribute to a common understanding of air pollution. With the release of her documentary, Chai Jing exposed journal articles that used the rhetoric of “fog” to mask the threat of “smog”, as well as many phone applications that reported air quality as healthy (Chai). News surrounding environmental issues had left Chinese citizens oblivious to the fact that the air they breathed was potentially harmful to their health. Given that “smog has been at extremely unhealthy levels since before 2004”, it can be assumed that Chinese sources had consistently and successfully censored all news that would have informed citizens of the hazardous air that they had been inhaling (Chai).
Chai Jing challenged censorship by releasing her documentary “Under the Dome”, which effectively called the citizens of China to action. The documentary exposed the detriment of the environment on the citizens and inspired Chinese communities to challenge China’s environmental policy. Chai was one of the few journalists who presented information with empirical evidence, political context, and emotional appeal. As a result, within the first couple of days, more than 150 million people had viewed “Under the Dome” (Mufson). Only after an entire week, the government had removed it from all media sources on the internet. Despite the government’s efforts, Chai’s ability to appeal to such a large population caused an outburst of media attention on air pollution, which led to the Chinese government’s decision to institute radically progressive policy changes. While many argue that the backlash in response to Chai Jing’s documentary coerced the government to make substantial policy changes, there is a separate narrative that the momentary lack of censorship of “Under the Dome”, was actually highly calculated.
Many would assume that the censorship of “Under the Dome” simply reinforces the premise that the government maintains strict censorship of material that criticizes government policies. However, given China’s advanced technology, “willingness to deal harshly” with reporters, and success of censoring news about the environment since 2004, the government was relatively lenient in permitting its presence on the internet for an entire week (Neiman). In other words, if the government’s intent was to preserve ignorance of environmental issues within the public sphere, censorship would have rapidly occurred. However, according to Dan Edwards, a journalist for Senses of Cinema, the government “not only permitted Chai Jing to disseminate “Under the Dome” to a massive audience… but also provided a space for public discussion of the issues raised by the film outside officially sanctioned channels” (Edwards). Contrary to typical government censorship, Chai Jing’s documentary was allowed on the internet despite having criticized governmental policy and additional conversations were even encouraged. Encouraging resistance of environmental policy seems counterintuitive to the assessment that “the goal of the Chinese leadership is to suppress dissent, and to prune human expression that finds fault with elements of the Chinese state, its policies, or its leaders” (King, Pan, Roberts). However, it is plausible that the government knew that allowing environmental issues to rise to the forefront of political discourse actually benefited the stability of China in the long hall.
American analyst Isabel Hinton argues that the lack of initial censorship of “Under the Dome” was a deliberate decision to appease an already-present and growing concern about the environment and air quality. Hinton contends that a “regime established on a foundation of lies and violence will inevitably weaken” (Edwards). In other words, the citizen’s developing understanding of the severity of the pollution could ultimately cause social unrest. Therefore, allowing Jing to shed light the issue left room for the government to appease people’s worry about the air quality. It is likely that the vocalization of this issue within the media allowed the government to emerge as the hero that led the charge against pollution.
As a result of public concern, the government instituted drastic policy change and announced ambitious plans to decrease their carbon footprint and overall emissions. Yet, strict censorship surrounding the environment resumed, creating the false image of China as a global leader of progressive environmental policy and sustainability. For example, in 2018, a popular news source in China, The People’s Daily, published an article that quotes a senior U.S. energy official who states that “China has shown ‘impressive seriousness’ about combating climate change despite economic pressures” (Xinhua). However, this article is problematic in that the journalist fails to provide concrete evidence of China’s efforts to combat the issue. The article continues to describe general qualities that the U.S. energy official had been impressed by, such as the government’s “pledge to reach a peak of emissions no later than 2030” (Xinhua). Yet, there is never a discussion about the plans to achieve such goals or statistics showing that policies are already being enacted. The ambiguous language simply praises the government for making ambitious promises, without being critical or skeptical of whether they have plans to achieve the goal.
Additionally, journalists tend to use rhetoric that is technically factual, while broadcasting an inaccurate depiction to their audiences. Through misrepresenting reality, the evidence provided is often used to praise policies of the Chinese government and minimize skepticism within the population. For instance, The People’s Daily claims that as a result of the “various efforts China has made to reduce carbon emissions, the country’s carbon intensity has seen a decline. China’s carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP were reduced by 46 percent between 2005 and 2017” (People’s). While the data may seem credible, one must take a closer look at the language. The article is not claiming that China’s overall carbon emissions have decreased, as most readers would infer. Instead, by carefully wording that the “carbon intensity has seen a decline”, People’s Daily is actually saying that the growth rate of their carbon footprint has slowed. In the words of The Washington Post’s Stephen Mufson, “China is not actually decreasing their emission, but instead simply not increasing their emission” (Mufson). Deceptive wording served as a strategy to pacify the public’s potential protest towards unhealthy living conditions and environmental justice.
The inconsistency of censorship ultimately sheds light on the fact that the government does not simply censor all media that criticizes authority. Ultimately, the government’s inconsistent censorship served to maintain the stability of Chinese society as well as paint China as a progressive leader in environmental justice despite having made little progress. Initially, maintaining citizens’ ignorance of China’s enormous carbon footprint and the effects of smog on the citizens benefitted the rapidly growing economy of China. In 2015, the lack of censorship of “Under The Dome” raised public awareness of pollution and therefore provided an appropriate time for the government to institute policy reforms and ambitious plans. Finally, censorship of news following the exposure of China’s unhealthy conditions allowed China to publicize themselves as a global leader of environmental justice because it appeared as if they were making successful bounds through progressive policies. However, the lack of empirical data and political context, as well as the use of deceptive rhetoric used in contemporary media contributes to a false image which ignores the fact that people continue to inhale smog levels up to twenty times higher than the legal limit (Jing).
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http://en.people.cn/n3/2016/0126/c90883-9009595.html. Accessed 10 Nov. 2018.
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