After "Under the Dome": Can China solve its air pollution crisis?

Somewhere in there is the city of Lianyungang. Image: Gety.

When it comes to air pollution, the government of China is currently standing on an ever-eroding precipice. On one side is a growing citizens movement, that is demanding clearer skies and a healthier environment; on the other are deeply instilled industrial, economic, and political patterns that cannot be rapidly revamped.

Before it was removed from the Chinese internet one week after it went live, Chai Jing’s Under the Dome documentary showed more than one third of the country’s 600m internet users the effect that air pollution is having on their health and how their country’s industries and government are complicit in its apocalyptic proliferation.

China does in fact have a range of environmental protection policies. But a recurring theme of the film was that they are often subverted by industries, intentionally overlooked by government officials, and are ultimately unenforceable by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). “We don’t have any teeth,” was how one MEP agent put it.

Under the Dome didn’t necessarily call for new environmental policies, but simply pushed for the proper enforcement of those which are already established. In other words, it argued that Chinese companies and government officials should be below the law – a similar agenda to that being pursued by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. To drive that point home, Chai showed estimates of how much less China’s air would be polluted, if only the country’s current emissions laws were obeyed.

Under the Dome got people talking across all sectors of the society, and a huge portion of the population realized that they were all saying the same thing. Before discussion of the film was purged online, the social network Sina Weibo alone contained over 280m posts on the subject.

“All of my friends are talking about the documentary,” said Ryan Lee, a musician from Shandong. “Everybody says they didn’t know the situation was serious to such a degree.”

A tourist wears a face mask in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Image: AFP.

After a series of colossal air pollution incidents, colloquially dubbed “airpocalypses”, in which cities more than a thousand miles apart were concurrently choked to a virtual standstill by the same blanket of smog, the Chinese government took its monumental first step towards improving air quality: it admitted that there was a problem.

Until then, they’d made a succession of denials and excuses for the haze, from it being fog to it being caused by farmers burning crops. The state run newspapers didn’t call the haze pollution, and even those living in extremely polluted regions often didn’t realise that the opaque atmosphere that surrounded them was anything to worry about. Few even found any reason to talk about it.

“When I was in high school, no one talked about air pollution,” said Diao Yanli, a teacher who grew up in an extremely polluted part of the Yantze River Delta. “People are more concerned about it now.”

Today, everybody knows exactly why they can’t see the blue sky above, and Under the Dome put a large swatch of the Chinese population on the same page about the issue. The film substituted the random scraps of knowledge that people tended to have about air pollution into a coherent body of information, outlining not only why and how their country has become so polluted, but offering directives on what ordinary citizens can do about it – namely, drive less and report the abuses of environmental laws they see.

This has caused many people in China to look in a single direction for a resolution to the haze: to the state. “I blame the government because the government controls most of the departments that are related to environment [and] who take charge of most of the factories and commercial organisations,” a young women from Ordos told me.

Having acknowledged the problem, the government automatically became responsible for fixing it. Premier Li Keqiang recently told the National People’s Congress that, “Environmental pollution is a blight on people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts. We must fight it with all our might.” The mayor of Beijing described his own city as being “unliveable”. And the president himself, Xi Jinping, declared that he was going to punish “with an iron hand” anyone who dared damage the environment, “with no exceptions”.

There’s a very close relationship between government decision makers and polluting industries: often, they are one and the same. China also features widespread corruption, and political fissures within the party itself.

For all those reasons, direct fiat has so far proved to be an ineffective strategy in China’s pursuit of cleaner air. This isn’t just a matter of industrial avarice: China’s big polluting industries employ millions of workers, and are the economic foundations of entire provinces. The proverbial switch on these industries can’t just be flipped off.

Mostly, China seems to be trying to ween itself of its biggest sources of pollution gradually. It’s providing massive subsidies and creating a more conducive environment for renewable energy production, as well as less polluting forms of transportation and green urban design.

In 2013 China invested $68bn into the renewable energy industry; last year it was $89bn. In less than a decade China has become a global leader in solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, producing more GW of renewable energy than the total power output of every other country in the world except the USA.

Nearly 300 new eco-cities are also currently under construction or are in the planning stages across China. While building hundreds of new cities may seem to be the least ecological thing a country can do, China’s eco-cities can be seen as testing grounds for a new kind of urbanism. They’ll allow green engineering designs and clean energy gadgetry — like seasonal energy storage — to be put into practice on a large scale.

Cyclists wear face masks in Beijing. Image: Getty.

Nonetheless, China’s dependence on coal is not yet hovering in the rear view mirror. Although the country will continue developing its renewable energy industries it will likewise continue expanding its use of coal, and are in the works to double total energy capacity by 2030.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), China is to add 363 new coal fired power plants, and increase coal energy capacity by 75 per cent, over the coming decades. By 2050 China’s coal usage is expected to drop to 30-50 per cent of its total energy supply – but that’s still an incredible amount of coal being burned. Coal, and the pollution associated with it, are going to be a part of the Chinese condition for a long time yet.

Right now, there is an ever-growing push by the Chinese public for cleaner air – and now the government has acknowledged the scale of the problem, it’ll be looked upon to produce results to match its rhetoric. Unlike other issues, the government cannot hide air pollution; the public can not only see it, but can monitor it, too, with apps and websites that show an up-to-the minute air quality index.

The question facing the Communist Party is how it can balance public opinion, governmental fissures, industrial profit motives, and the stability of the domestic economy. An unrequited commitment to improving air quality at this point could backfire and make the Party look inept and weak – exactly how an authoritarian regime cannot afford to look, if it easy to retain the legitimacy to continue ruling. 

“If things get worse and our government still does nothing, I'm not sure what will happen,” a woman from Jiangsu province told me. “It's not like anything else. It's survival.”

Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities of China".

 
 
 
 

In search of the UK’s great “city films”: the South, East Anglia and the Midlands

Beachy Head, East Sussex. Image: Wikipedia via Creative Commons.

Earlier this year, in the first blog in this series, I looked at the best city films set in London. Here the search extends outwards – to the urban metropolites of the South, East Anglia and the Midlands. The focus is on films with some combination of local stories, connections and shooting locations.

That first blog outlines the selection method in detail. If you haven’t time to read it, the key things to know are that films must have received a total IMDb score of at least 6.5 from at least 100 votes – if a film is missing from the list it is probably because it does not meet those criteria.

South East

Described by the Guardian as “one of the finest post-war British crime movies and possibly the best depiction of the seaside town on film”, Jigsaw (1962) is about a murder investigation set in and around Brighton. The producers made the film in partnership with the local police and there is extensive footage of Brighton and its surrounds. Despite similarities with the real-life Brighton Trunk Murders of the 1930s, the plot was based on a 1959 American novel.

Brighton is again the location for Smokescreen (1964), yet this time insurance fraud is the crime. In addition to scenes at locations around the city and neighbouring Hove, the rest of the filming was at Brighton Film Studios, which operated between 1949 and 1966 and was the the last of four main film studios in the area. Its closure marked the end of an era, since as early as “1912, when Hollywood was just beginning, film companies in Brighton had already produced hundreds of comedies, dramas and documentaries”.

The Chalk Garden (1964) is based on a play of the same name by Enid Bagnold and, although not a period piece, inspired by Bagnold's own inter-war life at North End House in the village of Rottingdean that borders Brighton immediately to the east. Bagnold (a remarkable woman) lived a well-healed existence and the servants – notably the governess – figure prominently in the tale. Brighton features in the film – including a scene in Preston Park that recruited background players from the Preston Lawn Tennis Club.

The storylines of a couple of 1960s Oxford films centre on that city’s ancient university. The Mind Benders (1963) is a spy thriller involving brainwashing science, while Accident (1967) is about professorial-student relationships. Accident is based on a novel of the same title by Oxford-educated Nicholas Mosley (the eldest son of Sir Oswald). Both films have numerous shots of the university; we’re talking “The Full Morse” here.

A good deal of Quadrophenia (1979) is set either in London or between London and Brighton, but it does also feature the latter’s famous seafront and beach. The film, which is about a young working-class Mod in the mid-1960s, recreates the fights between gangs of Mods and Rockers that marred Brighton and other south-coast towns over holiday weekends during the Sixties.

Fast-forward two decades and Down Terrace (2009), a “Sopranos on Sea”-type dark comedy, is Brighton to its fingertips. It has a handful of local scenes but is more a house-based play than movie. Directed and co-written by Brighton resident Ben Wheatley, it is named after the street in which it was filmed. The other co-writer, who also has a lead role, is Rob Hill, who met Wheatley at the University of Brighton. The house in which most of the filming took place was Hill’s own home in Down Terrace and Hill’s character’s father is played by his real-life father – also a Brighton resident. Wheatley and Hill self-funded the film and did interviews with “local drug dealers and ne’er-do-wells” for the initial script. Several tracks come from local folk singers, The Copper Family. I loved it (as did the British Independent Film awards).


Emulsion (2014), a slick and clever film about a man’s search for his “missing wife”, is a Bournemouth film. Writer-director Suki Singh is a graduate of Bournemouth University’s Film School and still based locally. Despite the town council’s car park featuring heavily a good number of locations in Bournemouth and Poole are shown, including cafes, a local country house, department store, major hotel, police station, converted art deco cinema and Alum Chine suspension bridge. The film’s premiere came through a local Indie Screen scheme whereby Poole’s Lighthouse cinema guaranteed to screen good local indie films. The production company is locally based and, in addition to film-making (e.g. Bournemouth-shot feature, K-Shop), plays a key educational and networking role in the city’s film community. Even the score was by a (London-based) Bournemouth University graduate.

20,000 Days on Earth (2014) charts 24 hours in the life of Australian- born, Brighton-based singer Nick Cave. It is a curio in that, while the person is real, the day is artificial – made up of arranged but unscripted encounters with famous faces from 20,000 days-old Cave’s life. Many of the encounters take place in a car as Cave drives around the city, mostly away from the town centre and seafront. The film has been called “a great Brighton film, giving a neon noir sheen to Cave’s adopted hometown” and “as much of a love letter to the seaside city as it is to the man that inhabits it”. So, let’s include it.

South West

The film world owes a debt to the city of Bristol in that it gave the world one Archibald Alec Leach – better known by his screen name: Cary Grant. The Bristolian usually vies with the likes of Brando and Bogart for the mantle of greatest male lead in movie history. His upbringing in (and later ties with) Bristol is well captured in last year’s excellent documentary, Becoming Cary Grant.

Grant has long held a fascination for playwright Peter Nichols who, like the film star, grew up in north Bristol. Nichols converted one of his early plays into a challenging and amusing film of the same name, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972). Nichols was rooted in the city, having been born there, educated at Bristol Grammar School, studied acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and had his first play staged at the Little Theatre (now part of Colston Hall). The play/film, based on Nichols' own experiences, is about how the burden of raising a very handicapped child can damage a marriage. The male lead is a teacher – just as Nichols had been. Funds to write the play came when legendary director-to-be John Boorman, then working at BBC Bristol, persuaded Nichols to write a screenplay for him – one that went on to make money. There are at least a handful of external shots filmed in the city although it remains more play than movie and you only hear a Bristol accent once – a funny department store scene.

Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), which was also shot in London, and Paper Mask (1990) both show Bristol locations albeit without any great local rootedness. Starter for 10 (2006) is about student life and a University Challenge quiz team at the University of Bristol yet, despite a few good Bristol shots, most of the university scenes were filmed at UCL and the University of Greenwich.

East Anglia

Ipswich has The Angry Silence (1960), a film about strike-breaking and, seen more broadly, an individual opposing a group. It was shot mainly in and around a big local factory (operational as recently as 2005), neighbouring streets and a local primary school. Extras comprised of both local amateurs and many factory staff, one of whom lent their battered (ie realistic) overalls to one of the film’s stars. The lead actor, Richard Attenborough, even visited the factory beforehand to learn to use the machine he worked on in the film, and later hosted a private showing for local extras at the old Ritz Cinema in the Buttermarket. The film still holds up almost sixty years on, yet not everyone took civic pride in it – Ipswich Trades Council voted to boycott it. 

Following a successful online campaign named “Anglia Square not Leicester Square”, the world premiere of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013) was held in Norwich’s Hollywood Cinema, with Steve Coogan appearing in character as North Norfolk Digital radio station’s own Alan Partridge. Coogan/Partridge greeted fans before being helicoptered to the London premier in Leicester Square! The film has some good shots of Norwich, although many scenes were also filmed on the Norfolk coast, at Sheringham and Cromer beaches, and around London.


Originally created as the master’s project of Norwich-born, -raised and -based director, Kris Smith, who was at the time studying film at Norwich University College of the Arts, I’m Still Here (2013) focuses on a young guy diagnosed with a terminal illness and draws on Smith’s own experience of a loved one in this situation. Smith, who both wrote and directed the film, worked with three locally based actor-filmmakers, and the soundtrack includes local band National Image and locally-based rap artist C.O.L.L. The main shots of the city are at the beginning – including a trip to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital (yet when a neighbour later drops him at “the hospital” the entrance shown is St George's in south London’s Tooting!). The premier took place at The Curve Auditorium, in Norwich’s Forum complex.

The short story that inspired the multi-award winning 45 Years (2015), which tells the tale of a retired couple, may have been set in north Wales, but the resultant film was indeed set in Norfolk. It includes a handful of scenes featuring popular Norwich locations and the nearby Norfolk Broads receive a nice profile too. The director, Andrew Haigh, has revealed that a lot of the scenes in Norwich featured genuine passers-by – lead actress Charlotte Rampling “would walk around the city and nobody even looked at her. We had the camera hidden in a van to film some of the scenes, so people wouldn’t see us”. Haigh knew the city well as he was living there at the time of filming while his partner was doing an MA in creative writing at University of East Anglia.

Blinded by the Light, at a cinema near you from 2019, is Gurinder Chadha’s film about the true story of a Bruce Springsteen-mad British Muslim growing up in Luton during the 1980s. The film is based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir, Greetings from Bury Park. Exact shooting locations are unclear although Manzoor, who is a co-producer and co-wrote the script, has said that “there have been moments on set when I could not stop smiling at the sight of a feature film crew in the middle of Luton”.

East Midlands

Nottingham is the focus of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), of which the screenplay, about a womanising hard-drinking young factory worker, was adapted by Alan Sillitoe, who was born and raised in the city, from his novel of the same name. The film’s anti-hero works in Raleigh bicycle factory – as Sillitoe himself had when it had been a wartime munition factory. The author’s family home was a main location for the film and his brother had a bit part. Numerous other city locations appear – from the castle to cinemas and pubs (including The White Horse – the setting for the short story that later became the novel). Although the closing scene was shot overlooking a Wembley housebuilding site, a Nottingham firm supplied one of its signs to bring “authenticity”. Not all locals welcomed the film: the then-Tory MP for Nottingham Central denounced it as a “foul libel on the respectful, clean living people of Nottingham”. The work was however deemed the 14th greatest British film in a 1999 BFI survey.

Shane Meadows, who moved to Nottingham from the eastern-most part of the West Midlands when he was 20, has shot several good films in and around his adopted home city. His first feature, TwentyFourSeven (1997), about a youth boxing club, was filmed in Nottingham suburbs and exurbs. A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), about two 12-year-old friends, was shot in Calverton – just outside the city. The relationship between the two boys is semi-autobiographical and based on the childhood relationship between Meadows and co-writer Paul Fraser. Much of Meadows’s This is England (2006), about skinhead youth in the early 1980s, was shot in residential areas of Nottingham. Meadows has used professional actors but has also drawn on local talent – notably from the Television Workshop in Nottingham – for key roles. The Workshop, now a charity, was originally set up by Central Independent Television in 1983 to act as a casting pool for young talent in their Midlands broadcasting region.

Leicester gets a look in with The Girl with Brains in Her Feet (1997), a coming-of-age tale, set in 1972, about a talented, mixed-race 13-year-old athlete at a school on the outskirts of Leicester. The screenplay was written by the late Jo Hodges who, back in 1972, had been a sporty, mixed-race 13-year-old at a school on the outskirts of …. you guessed it, Leicester.

Although it didn’t include lots of Northampton scenes, Kinky Boots (2005) is based on the true story of one of the area’s shoe-making companies managing to stave off closure through switching to producing women’s boots that were large and strong enough for drag queens and male fetish footwear lovers. The company was based a few miles outside Northampton although most of the internal factory scenes were shot at the Tricker’s shoe factory in Northampton itself.

The Unloved (2009) gives a child's eye view of the UK’s government-run care system for orphans and children in danger. Filmed entirely in Nottingham, it offers a handful of shots of the city and is a semi-autobiographical account of the upbringing of the film’s director, Nottingham-born-and-raised Samantha Morton (who has twice been nominated for acting Oscars). The film also gave leading roles to two actresses – Lauren Socha and Molly Windsor – who had attended the Television Workshop.

Oranges and Sunshine (2011) depicts the true story of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham who, in the 1980s, uncovered the horrifying and thankfully discontinued practice of Home Children; the forcible relocation, by misguided charities, of children in care from the United Kingdom to Australia and other parts of the Commonwealth. Humphreys reunited some of the children involved – now adults living mostly in Australia – with their parents in Britain and was awarded a CBE in 2011 for her work. Several Nottingham locations were used in the film although shooting also took place in Australia. The two main young actresses were Television Workshop alumni.

Nottingham was also the location for the Weekend (2011), which was named in 2016 by a BFI survey as the second best LGBT film of all time (Carol took first place, since you ask). The plot centres upon a casual encounter that shows signs of developing. The only real connection to the area, aside from locations including the Goose Fair, is that funding came from EM Media and the region’s now-closed development agency (EMDA).

Given that we are including villages just a mile or so outside Nottingham, A Boy Called Dad (2009), about a teenage father, also merits inclusion. An East Midlands production company raised the £1m needed to start shooting – obtaining funds from the former Regional Screen Agency, EM Media. North Wales and Merseyside locations also feature however.

West Midlands

Nativity! (2009), a film about a nativity play competition, is the stand-out Coventry (and West Midlands) film. Spon Street, various city landmarks and, in particular, the bombed-out St. Michael’s Cathedral can be seen in the film, which was written, directed and produced by Coventry-based Debbie Isitt, herself a product of a two-year Coventry Performing Arts Service course, and premiered at the city’s SkyDome Arena. The multi-talented Isitt even does the music along with her long-term partner Nicky Ager. Nativity! drew on Isitt’s memories of her primary school in Birmingham, which resurfaced when her own daughter (who appears in the film) reached the same age. The other children in the film, almost none of whom had agents, were recruited from schools around Birmingham and Coventry. In 2008, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire followed the filming and, to complete the local angle, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre even played a part in production. It’s an enjoyable feel-good Christmas film suitable for all ages.

The absence of a film from Birmingham is the elephant (not) in the room; the world is surely due a great Brum film? That said, there have certainly been good films from the city and these are outlined in the spreadsheet referred to below.

Scoring

Overall the films from the South, East Anglia and the Midlands offer some additional perspectives on England to those in the films featured last blog. Through watching them we see a nation with vibrant seaside towns, attractive provincial cities, ancient and redbrick universities, factories, and the post-industrial landscape left behind when these closed.

Anyway, once again I have used my “highly scientific” method to score those films. The full list of scores, complete with further details on all films, is available here. The top-scorers, for each region, are:

  • East – I’m Still Here (Norwich): 10.5 points
  • East Midlands – This is England and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (both Nottingham): 9 points each
  • South East – Down Terrace (Brighton): 12 points
  • South West - A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (Bristol): 7 points
  • West Midlands – Nativity! (Coventry) 11.5 points

The next installment will look at the best city films from the three regions that make up the North of England.

The author, a Brit based in Washington DC, is founder of The New Barn-Raising a project to promote international exchange on ways to sustain parks, libraries, museums and other community and civic assets. You can find him on Twitter at @newbarnraising.