What’s Happened to China’s Green Crusader?

September 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

It was announced in early August that Pan Yue, Deputy Minister of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), would be one of this year’s seven honorees of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award, which according to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation “is given to persons—regardless of race, nationality, creed or gender—who address issues of human development in Asian with courage and creativity, and in doing so have made contributions which have transformed their societies for the better.”

Few are as deserving of this award as Pan Yue.  I’ve long been an admirer of his (IHT/NYT).   Since 2003, when he became the vice deputy of the State Environmental Protection Agency (now MEP), Pan has been instrumental in suspending or closing down projects for not filing the required environmental impact assessments; in requiring coal-fired plants to install or retrofit filtering devices in their smokestacks; in fining chief executives of companies found responsible for waste-dumping; in promoting China’s ambitious renewable energy program (20% renewables by 2020); in pushing for a “Green GDP”–a GDP that factors in the costs of economic productivity to the environment; in establishing a “green credit policy,” which instructs banks not to give loans to energy-intensive, polluting industries; and in implementing the Environmental Assessment Law and the Open Government Information Regulations.

Deputy Minister Pan is tremendously quotable.  In an interview with China Dialogue in 2006, he remarked:  “In 20 years, China has achieved economic results that took a century to attain in the west.  But we have also concentrated a century’s worth of environmental issues into those 20 years.  While becoming the world leader in GDP growth and foreign investment, we have also become the world’s number one consumer of coal, oil, and steel—and the largest producer of CO2 and chemical oxygen demand (COD) emissions.”

But it’s the interview in Der Speigel a year earlier, where he really takes aim at the “xian wuran hou zhili” (先污染後治理 pollute first, control later) mentality of China’s economic modernizers.  Read it.  There he confesses, “I am pleased with the success of China’s economy.  But at the same time I am worried.  We are using too many materials to sustain this growth…the miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.  Acid rain is falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens does not have access to clean drinking water.  One third of the population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner.  Finally, five of the ten most polluted cities worldwide are in China.”

You have to like his straightforwardness.  I do, and that’s why I’m going to quote him once more (China Dialogue):  “Before the reform period we followed an exclusively political model, with class struggle as our guiding principle. We were unable to complete the transition from revolutionary party to ruling party, and instigated one political movement after another. In the 25 years since the reforms, China has followed an exclusively economic model. We are widely recognised as having achieved an economic miracle, but we have paid an enormous price. There has been a flaw in our thinking: the belief that the economy decides everything. If the economy is booming, we thought, political stability will follow; if the economy is booming, we hoped, people will have enough to eat and live contented lives; if the economy is booming, we believed, there will be money everywhere and materialism will be enough to stave off the looming crises posed by our population, resources, environment, society, economy and culture. But now it seems this will not be enough. When these crises really hit us, a little economic success will not be nearly enough to deal with them.”

It should be obvious why Pan is widely known as “the hurricane” and “the crusader.”

But he is also widely known for losing much of his influence in the MEP by late 2008-early 2009.  He has virtually disappeared from the scene.  As the title of a Guardian article loudly proclaimed, “China’s Green Champion Sidelined,” no longer did the Ministry delegate Pan to be its public spokesman; and no longer did Pan make routine media appearances.

In a quick survey of standard news databases, I found that the number of articles mentioning Pan Yue went into a steep decline from March of 2007 to the present: between March of 2007 and March of 2008 there were approximately 370; from March of 2008 to March 2009, there were 58; and since March 2009 there have been 41.  While highly unscientific, the survey does indicate that over this period there was a pretty steep falloff in Pan’s public profile.

The reasons for Pan’s changing fate are unclear.  Some of the Chinese environmentalists I’ve spoken to think government officials worried that Pan would oppose some of the large, more critical energy-intensive projects proposed as part of the economic stimulus package. Others believe that his notoriety, especially among foreigners, might be casting the rest of the Chinese government in an environmentally less caring and sympathetic light.  Still others suggest that Pan, in calling for greater citizenry participation, has been making conservative officials anxious.

The Magsaysay award shines a light on the efforts and achievements of Pan Yue, and reminds Beijing that Pan is an international figure whose environmental record and forthrightness are admired around the world.   How will Beijing respond?  With pride?  With resentment that it is being pressured to return Pan to the MEP stage?  Or what?

The awards ceremony took place in Manila this Tuesday August 31.  Pan’s citation read in part, “for his bold pursuit of a national environmental program, insisting on state and private accountability, encouraging state-citizen dialogue, and raising the environment as an issue of urgent national concern.”  Pan Yue was not present to receive his award.


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