Former China TV presenter stirs up wave of support and criticism with video on pollution

Former television presenter in China, Chai Jing, 39. She claims that an estimated half a million people die prematurely in China every year because of air pollution, citing former health minister Chen Zhu. -- SCREENGRAB: YOUTUBE / LINGHEIN HO 
Former television presenter in China, Chai Jing, 39. She claims that an estimated half a million people die prematurely in China every year because of air pollution, citing former health minister Chen Zhu. -- SCREENGRAB: YOUTUBE / LINGHEIN HO 
A woman covers her nose and mouth with her scarf amid heavy haze, as she rides a bicycle at the Pudong financial area in Shanghai on Feb 12, 2015. A former television presenter in China, inspired by her sick daughter, has produced a documentary video
A woman covers her nose and mouth with her scarf amid heavy haze, as she rides a bicycle at the Pudong financial area in Shanghai on Feb 12, 2015. A former television presenter in China, inspired by her sick daughter, has produced a documentary video on the country's air pollution scourge, triggering a wave of support and criticism. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

BEIJING - A former television presenter in China, inspired by her sick daughter, has produced a documentary video on the country's air pollution scourge, triggering a wave of support and criticism.

The 104-minute video by former China Central Television presenter Chai Jing, 39, claimed that an estimated half a million people died prematurely in China every year because of air pollution, citing former health minister Chen Zhu.

The use of coal in Beijing meant the concentration of cancer-causing PM2.5 particles in winter was 25 times higher than that in summer, said the video titled "Under the Dome".

"This was the PM2.5 curve for Beijing in January 2013, when there were 25 days of smog in that one month," Chai explained, referring to a widely used gauge of air pollution.

Back then, she said, she paid little attention to the smog engulfing much of China, even as her work took her to places where the air was acrid with fumes and dust, New York Times (NYT) reported.

"But when I returned to Beijing, I learned that I was pregnant."

"I'd never felt afraid of pollution before, and never wore a mask no matter where," Chai said in the video. "But when you carry a life in you, what she breathes, eats and drinks are all your responsibility, and then you feel the fear."

Chai said her concerns about what the filthy air would mean for her infant daughter's health prompted her to produce the documentary.

Chai's daughter was born with a benign brain tumour that required surgery and newspapers have quoted scientists who challenged her suggestion in the video that smog was to blame.

In the video, Chai also accused domestic oil giants of failing to improve petroleum quality, a step that could go a long way to cutting pollution from car exhausts.

"Under the Dome" was released online on Saturday, and it swiftly inspired an unusually passionate eruption of public and mass media discussion, according to NYT.

By Monday, the video had been played more than 30 million times on Youku, a popular video-sharing site in China, and it was also being viewed widely on other sites.

Tens of thousands of viewers posted comments about the video, many of them parents who identified with Chai's concern for her daughter, said the NYT report.

"Support Chai Jing or those like her who stand up like this to speak the truth," said one of the comments on Youku. "In this messed-up country that's devoid of law, cold-hearted, numb and arrogant, they're like an eye-grabbing sign that shocks the soul."

Among those cheering was Chen Jining, the new environmental protection minister.

"I think this work has an important role in promoting public awareness of environmental health issues," Chen said at a news conference in Beijing on Sunday. "So I'm particularly pleased about this event."

But some academics claimed that Chai's presentation was biased, saying she became concerned about air quality after her daughter was diagnosed with a benign tumour, but then failed to prove a causational link between the two, according to South China Morning Post.

There was also no scientific evidence to support the video's link between the rising number of cases of heart disease and air pollution, they said.

China has been tightening restrictions on the Internet and the documentary is somewhat critical of the government.

Access to the video was not blocked, but by Sunday evening, popular Chinese websites had removed prominent headlines and links about "Under the Dome" from their front pages, NYT reported.