The Return of China's Environmental Avenger


As China rolls out plans to tackle one environmental challenge after another — most recently Beijing pledged to initiate a nationwide cap-and-trade system for CO2 emissions in 2017 — it is easy to swing wildly between exultation and despair: Exultation at the ambition and despair at the current capacity. With every initiative, one must ask: Does China have the people, the institutions, and the structural incentives to implement its policies and programs? Most often, the answer is not reassuring.

The past few months, however, have brought reason for hope. Pan Yue, China’s most outspoken, innovative, and articulate environmental official, is back in action. Pan has served as a senior official within the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) and its predecessor, the State Environmental Protection Administration, since 2003, but was sidelined in 2009 for unknown reasons (speculation ranges from political problems to illness). Chinese media recently announced that Pan is now in charge of environmental impact assessments and has been promoted to deputy secretary for the Communist Party within the MEP. These responsibilities would reinforce his position as the second highest-ranking official in the ministry, squarely behind another well-regarded environmental official, the new head of the MEP, Chen Jining.

With Pan, what is old seems certain to become new again. For example, he is best known for his advocacy of the Green GDP program, which he introduced in the mid-2000s. It was eventually quashed by recalcitrant provincial officials, who did not want to reveal the degree to which they had failed to protect the environment, and the National Bureau of Statistics, which argued that it did not have the ability to undertake the statistical analysis necessary to calculate a Green GDP. Now, however, MEP is making a renewed push on this front.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Other “new” environmental policies that Beijing has announced over the past year or so have also been in Pan’s playbook for quite a while. In his 2007 book Thoughts on Environmental Issues, Pan introduces ideas such as the incorporation of environmental protection indicators into the performance evaluation of government officials and an environmental information disclosure system (see p. 242), both of which are currently being rolled out. He is also prescient in calling for China to take action on global climate change, claiming, “At the moment we are glad that the United States is still number one in carbon emissions, which leaves us a strong standing point… however, it is highly likely that China will be the number one carbon emission country in that time [in 2015]; everyone will be watching us then” (p. 295).

Pan may also find strong support for his views from on high. Well before Chinese president Xi Jinping’s current efforts to bring Confucianism back into Chinese political culture, Pan discussed the importance of integrating Marxism with traditional Chinese culture and philosophy as a means of ensuring a spiritual Chinese civilization and common prosperity (pp. 234-236).

Pan’s strongest fan base, however, has always been China’s environmental non-governmental organizations and on-the-ground activists, who look to him for both leadership and protection. He is a vigorous supporter of the “public’s right to know the truth” and the “right to supervise on planning related to national welfare and people’s livelihood” (p. 170). He has called broadly for the Chinese people — not simply a limited set of NGOs and government departments — to be able to “launch lawsuits in their own names” (p. 122). And when he asks, “What is a nation ruled by law?” and answers, “It is the equality enjoyed by everybody in front of the law,” (p. 123) it is almost certain that Chinese environmental activists everywhere are cheering.

With debate over the highly restrictive draft NGO law currently underway in Beijing, now more than ever, Pan needs to step forward to make sure his voice is heard. As he stated in an interview with Der Spiegel in 2005, “We need a law that enables and guarantees public participation, especially when it comes to environmental projects. If it’s safe politically to get involved and help the environment, then all sides will benefit. We must try to convince the central leadership of that.” Let’s hope that a decade later, Beijing will finally listen.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief