Tea Leaf Nation

Green Star Over China

Can the country’s unorthodox environmental minister tackle its massive pollution problems?

BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 07:  China's Minister of Environmental Protection Chen Jining attends the press conference of the National People's Congress on March 7, 2015 in Beijing, China. China needs to make extra efforts to battle the air pollution, the newly appointed Environmental Protection Minister said Saturday.  (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 07: China's Minister of Environmental Protection Chen Jining attends the press conference of the National People's Congress on March 7, 2015 in Beijing, China. China needs to make extra efforts to battle the air pollution, the newly appointed Environmental Protection Minister said Saturday. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

It wasn’t the sort of speech you’d expect from a soon-to-be minster of the Chinese government. On Jan. 27, Chen Jining waxed philosophical to graduating master’s degree students at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, where he was serving as university president. He talked about picking up Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers during a visit to Taiwan and about shooting the breeze with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg during a recent campus visit. Unlike the standard Chinese Communist Party apparatchik, Chen eschewed impenetrable party theory or bureaucrat-ese for personal anecdotes and motivational comments. The difference between mediocrity and excellence, Chen said, dressed in robes and a mortarboard, was not talent but “continued perseverance [and] sustained effort.” He closed his speech with a quote from China’s former premier and Tsinghua dean Zhu Rongji who in 2014 penned a letter to Tsinghua students telling them to be bold and fearless. “You’re young so what does it matter if you fail,” Chen quoted Zhu as saying.

So, it stunned many when a month later, Beijing announced that it had tapped Chen to be China’s new environmental minister. He was just 51, with a doctorate degree in environmental science from Imperial College London and a reputation for being “gutsy.” Ministers are cabinet-level officials and often climb the ladder by taking district, municipal, and then provincial posts. Chen, who spent his career in academia, is an outsider (though the Ministry of Education oversees Tsinghua). He seemed like a square peg in a round hole. Reuters wondered in a March 4 article if this “novice” communist bureaucrat might be “a breath of fresh air” for China’s environment. Despite the leadership declaring a “war on pollution” in 2013, coal-hungry China is the world’s biggest carbon emitter; 90 percent of China’s cities still have air that doesn’t meet the country’s air quality standards. (China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Fast forward three months and the mortarboard has given way to a hard hat. On June 16, Chen was in Baoding in north China’s Hebei province, visiting a sewage treatment plant. The city of 11 million people has the dirtiest air in China, Chen’s ministry announced in February. In Baoding, Chen looked glazed over, like many hard-traveling Chinese officials. Maybe his gutsy edge was already being worn down by the job?

But experts who monitor China’s environmental sector say that Chen’s performance has been promising and that there is still hope that Chen will boldly tackle the catastrophic damage that three decades of juggernaut industrial and economic growth have wrought on the country’s water, air, and soil. Erin Ryan, a law professor at Florida State University and an expert on China’s environmental legislation, said that Chen showed “courage and clearsightedness” when he spoke out in support of Under the Dome, a daring documentary about China’s environmental problems that came out in February. By early March, government censors were scrubbing the Internet of any traces of the film. Ryan said by email that she was hoping that Chen could “bring the rest of the government around to his approach, rather than the opposite.”

And Chen hasn’t been evasive about the monumental task he faces. On June 9, state media quoted him saying that “the Chinese environment is reaching or has reached its limit, due to years of sprawling development at the price of environment.” He vowed to take “more forceful” measures to tackle the problem within the next five years — as part of the government’s latest five-year plan, which will span 2016 to 2020. Part of the new more forceful approach is to include environmental taxes that will punish polluters and reward environmentally friendly corporations. On June 10, Beijing released a draft version of the tax law for public review. Ryan said that if the law goes forward, she would consider it “a great accomplishment under Chen’s leadership” because it would “harness market forces in support of environmental goals, which could be very powerful in China.”

Another bright spot on China’s environmental horizon is that China may reach peak emission levels for greenhouse gases some five years earlier than the government’s target of 2030, according to a recently released report by the London School of Economics. Fergus Green, coauthor of the LSE report, wrote that China has “turned a corner, with coal use falling over the last year, and [is] likely to plateau or fall further over the next few years before falling more strongly throughout the 2020s.”

Though the tax law and the fall in fossil fuel use both preceded Chen, they appear to be part of a wider government shift in attitude that allowed a hire like Chen in the first place. He is taking over as some of those efforts are starting to see results, but there are hopes that he can help sustain the push. Sam Geall, a research fellow at the University of Sussex in England and executive editor of the bilingual China Dialogue environmental website, told Foreign Policy that Chen “has had a positive impact so far” and that his appointment is part of a larger shift away from China’s previous “pollute first, clean up later” model. All this is “reflective of broader political support for tackling environmental issues,” Geall said. It’s a huge task and far from a one-man job, but perhaps Chen will take the advice that he poached from former premier Zhu — and continue to “be bold.”

Photo credit: Feng Li/Getty Images

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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