Sunday, November 15, 2020

DOC NYC ’20: Smog Town

Anyone skeptical of Biden advisors’ plan for a two-track relationship with China, one pushing back against human rights abuses, while the other seeks cooperation on climate change, should consider themselves largely vindicated by this documentary. The film quietly observes the work of the local regulatory authorities in Langfang, China’s smoggiest, most polluted city. It turns out environmental protection is a dirty business in HAN Meng’s Smog Town, which screens as part of the 2020 online edition of DOC NYC.

Although we are not trained in environmental science, we would guess the colossal industrial behemoths Han periodically shows belching emissions into the air could be a good place to cut Langfang’s air particulates. Instead, the local regulators raid a neighborhood garage that specializes in spray-painting cars. It is a highly telling incident, especially when the proprietor shows up at their offices, hoping he can save his business with the right permits, only to be bounced up and down the hall, in a truly Kafkaesque exercise in bureaucratic absurdity.

Supposedly, China’s big cities are under strict orders to clean up their act. In Langfang, Li Chunyuan (“Uncle Smog Buster”) is in charge of implementing the get-tough policies. He talks green in his public appearances and preachy books, but in meetings, he and his staff only care about their relative standing in the Party’s spreadsheets. They frequently raid poor neighborhoods cracking down on coal stoves, even though one inspector casually admits he uses one himself. The entire third act is dedicated to their emergency efforts to lift themselves from the bottom of the list, but it is all short-term gimmicks, like road blocks banning outside automobiles and nothing will really address systemic problems.

Remember what you see in
Smog Town next time you hear Xi or Mike Bloomberg touting China’s environmental progress. Yet, the doc is even more damning as an expose of how government regulators operate and the callous disregard they have for small businesses and mom & pop proprietorship. We see Li’s inspectors putting such establishments out of business, but it clearly does not help the quality of life in Langfang.

Han had remarkably free access to the Li and his staff, none of whom seem to realize how petty and ineffectual to their professional behavior looks on-screen. Only Hu, his chief deputy, seems like he genuinely cares about the environment (perhaps because he has two young daughters). In many ways,
Smog Town compares and compliments Zhang Zanbo’s The Road, capturing institutional corruption and dysfunction that is so deeply pervasive, the subjects are essentially unaware of it, like fish swimming in water.

Regardless, this would be an excellent film for the next president to see before taking office. Partly, because it concretely documents the questionable commitment to environmental protection in China, but also because it demonstrates how misguided regulation often hurts the working class and small businesses most of all. It is revealing stuff and timely as heck. Very highly recommended,
Smog Town screens online, as part of this year’s DOC NYC, through 11/19.