Critic of unbridled growth tipped as new China environment minister
March 4, 2013
By David Stanway and Benjamin Kang Lim
Pan Yue, a high-profile official with a history of taking on big
state-owned interests, has emerged as the front-runner to become China's
new environment minister, sources said, amid growing public discontent
over worsening pollution in the country.
Pan, a former journalist, is tipped to take over from career bureaucrat
Zhou Shengxian when Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang forms his new cabinet
during the annual session of parliament which begins on Tuesday, three
independent sources familiar with the matter said.
"A recommended list (of cabinet ministers) lists Pan Yue as the
environmental protection minister. But this is not final and could
change at the last minute," a source with ties to the leadership told
With China desperate to show it is determined to tackle its pollution
problems, the appointment of the popular Pan would help build confidence
in the country's environmental protection bodies and their ability to
rein in some of the country's most powerful industrial interests.
Public anger over air pollution that blanketed many northern cities in
January has spread to online appeals for Beijing to clean up water
supplies as well. Across the country, to the government's alarm, social
unrest spurred by environmental complaints has become increasingly common.
Pan has routinely criticized China's excessive focus on growth and the
weakness of its environmental watchdogs, saying the country's obsession
with economic expansion had created a massive "environmental overdraft".
But the 53-year-old has paid the price before for his outspoken comments.
Also, the environment ministry still faces formidable odds in the face
of China's complex bureaucracy and weak enforcement of laws. It lacks
the authority to take on big state-owned enterprises, including oil
firms, and local governments.
"If Pan Yue is appointed minister, it would give real credibility to
(incoming President) Xi (Jinping)'s message about wanting people who get
results and don't just talk," said Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at
the Council on Foreign Relations who has studied China's environmental
Parliament spokeswoman Fu Ying said on Monday that the largely rubber
stamp legislature would tighten two environment laws during its annual
session by linking protection efforts with local government performance
evaluations and further reining in emissions.
Pan's possible promotion would also represent a significant upturn in
fortunes since his career stalled in 2008 amid political opposition and
In the middle of the last decade, when he served as the deputy director
of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), Pan was
feted by the domestic and foreign media as a fearless campaigner against
giant government-backed polluters, but his stance created enemies.
"Many saw him as too liberal, but he has restrained himself in recent
years," a second source with leadership ties said.
His profile reached a climax in 2005, when he confronted dozens of
powerful state-owned enterprises. The crux of the row was SEPA's power
to enforce its rules, with the state giants arguing they were directly
subject to the State Council and therefore not obliged to comply with
SEPA rules involving environmental impact assessments.
The media heralded Pan the victor after the Three Gorges Project Corp,
the powerful state-owned developer of the world's biggest hydropower
project on the Yangtze River, was ordered by the State Council to comply
with SEPA following a week-long stand-off.
In 2006, he also took on the China Petrochemical Corp (Sinopec) and the
China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), the parent of PetroChina, the
country's two biggest oil firms, in a drive against water pollution.
And in 2007, Pan again turned his attention to China's big state-owned
power firms, including Datang Power, Huadian Power and Huaneng Power,
all accused of failing to comply with SEPA regulations.
Known in the Chinese media as "environmental protection storms", the
campaigns pitted China's relatively weak environmental agency against
some of the most powerful interest groups in the country -- including
Huaneng, formerly run by the son of Li Peng, China's influential former
In 2008, while still a vice-minister at the newly established Ministry
of Environmental Protection, Pan was stripped of most of his public
responsibilities, and restricted to handing out awards, launching
awareness campaigns and making speeches.
Pan's public criticism of powerful state interests might have been the
main reason his career stalled, but his divorce from a daughter of
prominent military official Liu Huaqing did not help, the sources said.
Liu, who died in 2011, was navy commander from 1982 to 1988 and credited
with its modernization. He was also a member of the Communist Party's
Politburo Standing Committee - the apex of power in China - from 1992 to
But after years of lying low, Pan's confrontational style could now make
him the right man for a very difficult job, and help head off growing
public anger about the state of the country's rivers and skylines.
"Certainly his appointment would give a real boost to the prominence of
the environment within the government bureaucracy," said Economy.
"Overall, it would be a big win for environmental activism."
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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