China's environment minister vowed yesterday (Saturday) to give the public more information about the toxic air they breathe, less than 24 hours after Communist Party censors purged a viral film from the internet about smog in a move that sparked heavy public criticism of Beijing.
Under the Dome, a much-hyped documentary by celebrity journalist Chai Jing, took China by storm this week, prompting heated debate about the environment. In just a few days, the film - described as China's answer to An Inconvenient Truth - was watched more than 200 million times.
The environment minister, Chen Jining, was among those who initially praised the project, comparing it to Silent Spring, a seminal 1962 book that is credited with kick-starting the environmental movement in the United States.
However, on Friday, less than a week after Under the Dome had been released, it began mysteriously vanishing from Chinese websites after the Communist Party decided that public criticism had gone too far.
The video's disappearance - sarcastically attributed by one academic to "gremlins" but in truth the result of a directive from propaganda chiefs in Beijing - placed China's newly appointed environment minister in a fix.
He was scheduled to meet the media on Saturday afternoon, as part of a round of heavily choreographed "press conferences" held during the National People's Congress, China's annual rubber-stamp parliament. Questions about Under the Dome might have been expected, given its impact.
Yet there was not a single mention of the film - nor of its fate - during the session. Organisers permitted 12 questions during the apparently scripted 70-minute event but not one referred to the biggest environmental story of the week.
Foreign correspondents in the audience waved their arms in the air in vain until the minister was spirited out of the conference room and back out into the Beijing smog.
China's leaders talked tough on the environment this week, as more than 3,000 delegates arrived in Beijing for the annual political summit.
"We are going to punish, with an iron hand, any violators who destroy ecology or environment, with no exceptions," Xi Jinping, the Communist Party general secretary, vowed on Friday, as thick smog descended on the Chinese capital.
On Thursday, China's prime minister, Li Keqiang, told the congress's opening session: "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."
Mr Chen repeated those promises on Saturday, admitting he felt "uneasy" about the state of his country's skies. Asked if he had the power to defeat the smog, he said: "Can we do it? Yes we can - but it will be very difficult."
Mr Chen, who studied at Imperial College London during the 1990s, said China was facing an "unprecedented conflict between development and environmental protection" and that "extra effort" was needed to solve the problem. "We will deal with today's crisis to avoid a bigger crisis tomorrow," he promised.
Chinese state media were quick to report those pledges. Xinhua, the official news agency, published no fewer than four stories about the minister's press conference on its website.
One of those articles heralded Mr Chen's commitment to "enhance information transparency and guarantee the public's rights to supervise the fight against air pollution".
The Communist Party's decision to suppress a film that sought to do just that did little to convince people that real change was coming.
"The real pollution is bad governance," one user of Weibo, the Chinese social networking site, commented on Friday as Under the Dome began to disappear from the web. "If we cannot get rid of those bad people, the smog will always hang over us."
- Additional reporting Ailin Tang