Public fury after Chinese environment minister keeps job

A rare show of public opposition to a ministerial appointment shows the Chinese people can no longer accept government inaction on the worsening environment

In his eight years as China’s environmental protection minister, Zhou Shengxian has failed to keep almost a single promise. I say “almost”: he has kept his word at least when it comes to his own career – as promised, he has not quit.

When the new leadership’s ministerial appointments were announced last weekend, Zhou retained his post, to the disappointment of those concerned about the environment. The public questioned why a minister with no achievements should remain in power.

When, on March 16, almost 3,000 representatives to the National People’s Congress voted on 25 ministerial appointments, Zhou received the lowest number of supporting votes, showing the level of discontent with his work.

The news was also met with catcalls from the public. Musician Zhao Tianming asked on his microblog if anyone knew what the minister’s achievements were. The vast majority of the 4,000-odd netizens who forwarded and commented on his message did not. One asked if the fact that one river was full of pigs and others had dried up; and the towns covered in smog and millions suffering from dust-related lung diseases could be classed as ministerial feats.

Another Internet user counted off the minister’s achievements: “2006, lead pollution in Hui county, Gansu. 2007, algae bloom in Lake Tai. 2010, Zijin Mining pollution. 2011, ConocoPhilips oil leak. 2012, Guangxi cadmium pollution and Beijing smog. 2013, aniline leak in Shanxi, groundwater pollution in Shandong and pig corpses in Shanghai.” The message was forwarded almost 6,000 times.

The Financial Times published a reader’s letter on its Chinese website, a link to which was posted on the paper’s Sina microblog (China’s equivalent of Twitter) and forwarded over 6,000 times. The author, who signed the letter with the name “Cassia”, quoted a recent chinadialogue article: “The last five years have also seen the MEP loosen environmental impact assessment requirements, allowing large projects nationwide – and particularly in ecologically fragile west China – to go ahead unimpeded, with the power giants free to destroy rivers… we see it delay, neglect its duty, pass blame, prevaricate, and even make things worse… It is utterly disappointing…” and “For the MEP, the last 10 years can be summed up as “a strong start, and a weak finish.”

The letter referred back to the moment Zhou took over as head of the State Environmental Protection Agency (later upgraded to the Ministry of Environmental Protection) after a chemical spill on the Songhua River forced Xie Zhenhua to resign. Zhou, it said, joked at a press conference that he would “strive not to quit”. The letter asked: “Eight years later, what has he done? Nothing but talk.”

The letter went on: “Zhou has certainly kept his promise – no matter how much everyone complains, he refuses to quit.”

Investor and online personality Xue Manzi said in a public post that “Hundreds of millions have suffered from days of winter smog in northern China. As Minister of Environmental Protection, he should have quit long ago. Do you agree?” The response was a resounding “Yes”.

A new “iron fist” on environment

It is extremely rare to see such questioning and opposition from the public in response to a ministerial appointment. It demonstrates that the public can no longer accept a worsening environment and the inaction of the MEP.

But despite Zhou’s reappointment, there are clear signs that the new administration is planning to do something about the weakness of environmental protection.

On January 20, China News Service reported that Li Keqiang, now China’s premier, had pushed strongly for the monitoring and publication of data on air pollutant PM 2.5. Li was the first of China’s new leadership to take a position on air pollution.

In late 2011, after Beijing had suffered days of smog and the authorities were dithering over the issue, Li forcefully advocated the monitoring and prompt publication of PM 2.5 levels, the report said. He questioned the hesitation of other officials: “So what if we do publish? It’s an era of online information sharing; if you don’t publish the public will get the information from somewhere else. You’ll fool nobody.”

At his first press conference on March 17, the premier showed the new leadership’s firm stance on environmental protection, but did not praise past environmental work. Speaking about the widespread smog in eastern China, he said “This makes me unhappy, as it does everyone. We need to be more determined in dealing with this long-standing problem, and take more action to deal with it.”

He also said that both environmental law and official accountability will be enforced with “fists of iron” – pollution companies will not be let off lightly, and officials at all levels of government, including the minister, will be held responsible for their work.

It is hard for the public to believe that minister Zhou, who has done little, will now clench an iron fist. If the MEP continues to muddle along as it has for the last five years, talk of a “beautiful China” will indeed be nothing but talk.