Seeing Through the Smog By Wenjuan Zhang

CORN March 2015 Edition.

Potential Impacts of the Documentary Under the Dome on China’s Civic Participation

Smog Documentary from the Youtube Viedo Screen

A documentary on smog has recently caused a flurry of discussion in Chinese social media. This article discusses its impacts on civil society participation and public debate as well as the potential for experimenting with collaborative governance for addressing complicated social problems.

On February 28th, a well-known former journalist of China’s state-owned media outlet CCTV released what may soon amount to a ground-breaking documentary on China’s pollution problem. Ms. Chai Jing’s (柴静) documentary Under the Dome (穹顶之下) aims to answer a few seemingly simple questions: Where is the smog from? What is causing the smog and how can it be dealt with?

Based on media reports, within one day of its release, the documentary had received over 74 million clicks; within 48 hours, that number had jumped to 200 million. This overnight phenomenon has sparked unprecedented discussions and debates about the documentary in both traditional and social media in China. Even though the Chinese government speedily moved the documentary out of the spotlight after March 2nd—just four days after its release—the impact was already being felt. The documentary’s impact on civic participation in China is significant and worth discussing. As freelancer Pan Yueran wrote on the BBC Chinese website, the total impact of China’s environmental activists in the last many years cannot even compare with the documentary’s achievement within a few days.

The greatest value of Ms. Chai’s documentary seems to be its ability to educate the Chinese public on the dynamics of air pollution, if not making a direct call for environmental activism in China. However, as a public interest lawyer for over nine years in China, I am more inspired by the documentary’s implications on the civic participation in China.

A Constructive Approach to Civic Participation

The documentary shows that a constructive model of civic participation can make a huge contribution toward the resolution of China’s complex social and environmental problems—many of which are the result of China’s rapid economic development and complicated social transition to a more market-based economy. In the documentary, Ms. Chai clearly defines the problem of smog, analyzes its root causes, provides concrete solutions and sends a clear message to the public’s own role in the problem. Her story-telling style is compelling, inviting the general public to take part in these scientific and policy debates. The approach of Ms. Chai’s documentary is straightforward: practical, collaborative and constructive.

This contrasts with what appears to be a decline in trust between government and civil society in China, where civic participation tends to swing between extremes of being too superficial or too confrontational. Until the release of her documentary, few civil society organizations found strategies that led to effective and consistent public participation. And now with the widespread discussion of her documentary, her approach to civic participation may provide a sound example for Chinese civil society to study.

A More Focused Form of Public Debate?

Public discussions about Ms. Chai’s documentary have in one fell swoop provided the general public with a perfect opportunity to learn the rules and norms of public debate and deliberation. Even though China has been experimenting with various forms of democracy at the grassroots level, such as with the direct elections of head of village committees or urban community committees, the majority of Chinese nevertheless lack direct experience with democratic participation. There are indeed some platforms for participatory democracy, but those tend to result in either overly superficial or emotional responses.

In the formal participatory mechanisms, such as public hearings or congressional sessions, participation is usually superficial with major decisions having already been decided behind closed doors. Likewise, participants are often afraid of debate or voicing opposing opinions. In many public hearings, such as those regarding subway ticket or electricity prices, the participants are suspected of being “planted” by public authorities. This non-confrontational or even deferential mindset is also popular among representatives of the National Congress and members of the People’s Political Consultative Conference, which stand at the highest levels of the national policy-making process.

The emergence and spread of social media in China have certainly provided many informal platforms for public debate on hot topics, even if these informal channels tend to descend into the emotional and unsubstantiated. However, recent discussions about Ms. Chai’s documentary have shown that some rules and social norms of public debate are emerging. For instance, commenters have generally stayed “focused on the topic” during public debate. Ms. Chai’s private life has inevitably been brought up in discussions, but the majority of commenters have kept the documentary—rather than Ms. Chai’s personal background—at the centre of the discussions. Another observable trend is that the majority of commenters have called for others to make evidence-based rebuttal. Naturally, there are questions about Ms. Chai’s political motivation or personal interest in making the documentary, but the majority of commenters seem to support the idea that the debates should remain more or less professional, empirical, and non-ideological. These are all encouraging signs, perhaps generating a process of “learning by doing” which will make future public debates more effective and constructive.

Experimenting with New Forms of Public-Private Partnerships

The data and scientific evidence presented in Ms. Chai’s documentary may indeed have flaws—something other commenters have already touched upon. But putting aside these possible flaws, I’ll focus on the solutions that Ms. Chai has proposed. One critical solution she has proposed is to strengthen the power of the government’s environmental protection agency. Is this the best solution? Doubtful. Enforcing environmental law with greater vigour will be meaningless unless we can inspire the relevant agencies and officials to improve law enforcement through public entrepreneurship or experimental partnerships with stakeholders. Below are my three main reasons.

First, law enforcement is seldom improved by simply strengthening agency power. In most cases, it is the lack of will—not the lack of power—that makes the agency reluctant to fully implement the law. I will use the case of child labour in China to illustrate this point. The Provisions on the Prohibition of Child Labour granted the Department of Labour and Social Securities as well as the judiciary a wide range of specific measures to enforce the law. It provides that the employer will be fined for 5000 RMB (about US$850) each month for using a child labourer. If the employer fails to change behaviour within the prescribed time, the fine will be doubled and the business license revoked or banned from operation if never having been licensed in the first place. The law also specifies the punishment for introducing child labour to work. The law further provides that anybody who forces a child to work, or causes death or severe injury of a child labourer, will be liable for criminal prosecution. But the use of child labour is still a big problem in China. The reason for the law going weakly or selectively enforced stems from the negligence and lack of will in the law enforcement agencies and officials—and not because of any weaknesses in the law itself.

Second, some experiments with building partnerships with civil society have indeed improved law enforcement—even when the law itself has been toothless.

For example, the Shanghai Youth Protection Committee has experimented with a different law enforcement mechanism in which citizen volunteers are trained to report child rights violations and document responses from the administration, and then to rank the relevant agencies based on performance. This type of oversight has greatly improved law enforcement agencies’ performance even though the PRC Law on the Protection of Minors is more akin to a moral announcement.

Therefore, in terms of improving law enforcement, we need to equally explore public entrepreneurship instead of relying on old shibboleths of strengthening agency power and merely revising laws. Many well-educated people have joined the government and assumed managerial positions. They should be inspired to conduct strategic management, to create public values, and to be more helpful to the society.

Recognizing the Limits of Traditional Law Enforcement in Dealing with Smog

Finally, the complexity of social problems requires reforms in models of governance. Many of the problems China faces today have causes that are ambiguous, uncertain and interrelated. Take the example of the particular steel company presented in Ms. Chai’s documentary. This steel company is a chronic heavy polluter, not approved by China’s environmental protection agency, but cannot be shut down for the ten-thousand job losses—and potential social instability—that will result from its closure. What ensues then is an environmental agency complaining about its powerlessness while the company continues to operate, and so contributes to the worsening of China’s pollution problem. Instead, law enforcement should turn to a more collaborative form of governance, organizing stakeholders to collectively develop solutions.

Nor can China’s pollution problem be dealt with by merely turning to experts with established knowledge. To solve the air pollution problem and to achieve sustainable development in general, we need innovations in public administration which call for the joint efforts of stakeholders to experiment with the best solutions. The traditional command-and-control model of governance must give way to a more inclusive model of governance, which can more effectively coordinate the intellectual and material resources of all kinds of stakeholders in various spheres—in business, in administration, in civil society, and in local government.

The greatest weakness of Ms. Chai’s documentary may be that it neglects the challenges faced by traditional law enforcement mechanisms and the necessity of building partnerships between the government and civil society to experiment with best solutions. Regardless of its flaws, Ms. Chai’s documentary has already had an unprecedented impact on civic participation in China—both in demonstrating a collaborative and constructive model for civil society while leading the public to reflect on rules of debate and deliberation.


Wenjuan Zhang Photo


Wenjuan Zhang, Associate Professor and Assistant Dean for International Collaborations of Jindal Global Law School, Executive Director of the Center for India-China Studies, focusing on research areas of the rule of law building and role of lawyers; collaborative governance,  child law, and comparative studies of social justice and social development in India and China.

 


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