Inconvenient Truths

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

It’s not every week that China-and-India-watchers have parallel stories to chew over, but that’s what’s been happening for the last few days. In both countries, a documentary film about an important social issue has provoked government censorship. Neither film reveals anything that most people didn’t already know, to some degree. So why are the Chinese and Indian governments going so far to limit access to these movies?

The China story concerns Under the Dome, an investigation into the air pollution that blankets Chinese cities many days of the year. Under the Dome is the work of former CCTV journalist Chai Jing, who delivers a TEDtalk-style presentation about smog that explains the sources and effects of air pollution in layperson’s terms. That China suffers from significant pollution problems is no secret — it’s as visible as the smog in the sky. But Chai positions herself as an everywoman who wants to understand the pollution problem and happens to have the skills and resources to look into it. Wearing jeans and a soft blouse, she speaks of how becoming a mother — and learning that her daughter had a benign tumor, the cause of which is unknown — sparked her investigation. Chai the investigative reporter is also just another Chinese parent, worried that the toxic byproducts of economic growth will harm her child.

Under the Dome was released online on Saturday, February 28. By the end of that weekend, it had gone viral, with views quickly climbing into the tens of millions and then past one hundred million. Chen Jining, the new minister of environmental protection, praised Chai’s work and compared it to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring; many took his comments as an implicit government endorsement of Under the Dome, despite previous state attempts to downplay China’s environmental woes. People’s Daily Online also cast a spotlight on the movie, further suggesting that Chai had government approval for her investigation.

But then, after 250 million-plus views of the documentary, Under the Dome fell under the axe, disappearing in plain sight on Friday, March 6. Earlier in the week, the authorities had ordered media outlets to downplay the film, in an attempt to stifle the vibrant online discussions it had inspired, but Under the Dome’s removal from the internet signaled that the conversations were entirely over. When Chen Jining held a press conference the following day, he didn’t rescind his prior praise of Under the Dome — he didn’t mention the movie at all.

Unlike Under the Dome, India’s Daughter never even made it to screens in India, though the discussion surrounding it has been no less fervent. A production by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, the documentary recounts the story of the brutal gang rape in December 2012 of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi. News of the attack, and Singh’s death from her injuries 13 days later, drew global attention to the problem of violence against women in India. Udwin’s film contains interviews with one of the convicted rapists, who expresses no remorse (though he claims his role was limited to driving the bus on which the rape took place) and blames Jyoti Singh for what happened to her. Perhaps even more shocking than the man’s comments are those from attorneys who defended Jyoti Singh’s attackers. “In our culture, there is no place for a woman,” argues one of the lawyers, explaining to the audience that Singh should not have been out in public with a male friend after dark and casting the attack on the pair as inevitable.

Claiming that India’s Daughter posed a threat to public order with its discussion of violence against women, an Indian court blocked the documentary from being aired in the country. Although it was briefly available on YouTube, the video has since been removed from the site. The BBC had originally planned to broadcast the film on Sunday, March 8 — International Women’s Day — but moved the showing up by four days, and the movie is available on the network’s website (ostensibly limited to viewers in Britain, but accessible by those who know how to use a VPN; there’s also a work-in-progress transcript at Feministe).

india's daughter youtube

In China, online discussion of Under the Dome flourished before the government banned the film, and then abruptly stopped as a result of the crackdown; in India, the debate over India’s Daughter has grown around the act of censorship itself. NDTV, which had brought broadcast rights to the documentary from Udwin for the symbolic amount of one rupee (two cents), could not air the film as planned on International Women’s Day. Instead, televisions tuned to NDTV at the scheduled hour showed only “a black screen displaying the title of the documentary in red and white, and a flickering earthen lamp — a Hindu symbol for dispelling the darkness of ignorance,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Both Under the Dome and India’s Daughter cover important issues that are, to varying degrees, already widely known in their respective countries. These documentaries also fit into the global narratives about China and India. Photographs of smog-shrouded Chinese cities and crowds of people wearing face masks have circulated widely in international media. Likewise, as writer Sonia Faleiro writes in 13 Men, her account of a 2014 gang rape in eastern India, “a reader poring over the press reports might have easily concluded that when it came to women’s safety, India was a lawless wilderness.”

But the stories could just as easily switch locations: Indian cities also suffer from intense air pollution, and China has only recently begun addressing the widespread problem of domestic violence in the country. Ten feminist activists in China were arrested over the weekend in advance of International Women’s Day, presumably to prevent them from staging any protests (China’s parliament is holding its annual meeting, making this a politically sensitive time). Global media narratives might boil down to “China—pollution—bad” and “India—women’s rights—inadequate,” but neither country’s social problems can be reduced to a single issue.

Returning to those single issues, though, one final thing to note about both documentaries is that they cover problems the governments of China and India have themselves pledged to address. The Chinese government has moved to improve the country’s environment, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the occasion of International Women’s Day to denounce violence against women and reiterate his commitment to women’s rights, an important (though controversial) part of his campaign platform last year.

So why have the governments imposed blackouts against Under the Dome and India’s Daughter? It seems to boil down to a question of control. The Chinese government likely did not expect Under the Dome to go viral, and when public discussion of the film grew too big, the decision to censor it was made. The circumstances surrounding India’s Daughter — that the movie was made by a foreign filmmaker and first aired on TV in Britain, India’s former colonial ruler — led one Indian politician to criticize the film as “an international conspiracy to defame India.” Both governments want to ensure that they direct the conversation about issues that they have deemed acceptable for public debate. When that control cannot be maintained, viewers get a blank screen and error message to talk about instead.

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