March 3, 2015 / 5:13 AM / 3 years ago

China hopes novice environment chief will be breath of fresh air

A woman covers her nose and mouth with her scarf amid heavy haze, as she rides a bicycle at the Pudong financial area in Shanghai, February 12, 2015. REUTERS/Aly Song

BEIJING (Reuters) - One year after “declaring war” on pollution, China has appointed an inexperienced outsider as its new environment minister tasked with breathing life into a massive clean-up campaign that even optimists say will take decades to complete.

Beijing has vowed to reverse the damage done to its skies, rivers and soil during China’s three-decade dash for growth, putting its under-resourced environment ministry under pressure to deliver results.

Leading that drive will be Chen Jining, 51, an environmental scientist and president of China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, who was appointed the country’s Minister of Environmental Protection on Friday.

As China’s annual parliament opens this week, Chen will need to show an increasingly angry public that the environment remains one of the top priorities, while reassuring thousands of regional delegates that there is still room for economic growth.

Academic colleagues describe him as determined and well-organized, and said his expertise would give him a vital edge. But his inexperience could pose difficulties as he navigates the opaque, internecine struggles of the Communist Party hierarchy.

“What he is facing is not only technical problems, but the trade-off between economic growth and social development, and he will also need bureaucratic skills to settle internal disputes,” said Ma Zhong, dean of the School of Environmental and Natural Resources at China’s Renmin University.

But Chen’s novice status could also be an advantage as he tackles vested interests in industries and local governments.

“There are downsides to being a political outsider, to be sure, but it also frees him from responsibility for the status quo - and perhaps will make it easier for him to reject the status quo and start down a new path,” said Erin Ryan at the Lewis & Clark Law School in the United States, who studies Chinese environmental legislation.

The environment ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

BREAK FROM PAST

Chen’s predecessor, Zhou Shengxian, was a consummate insider who became China’s top environmental official in 2006. But his tenure was tarnished by a long sequence of scandals ranging from contaminated milk and rice to a river in Shanghai filled with dead pigs. Air quality also deteriorated on his watch.

Never entirely at ease with the media, or the growing public scrutiny of China’s environmental record, Zhou failed to show up at a briefing for journalists only days after pollution was identified as one of the country’s top priorities during last year’s parliament.

Chen has already made efforts to distinguish himself from his predecessor, using his first public appearance since his appointment to talk to local reporters.

He stressed the importance of improving legal enforcement and oversight, and also spoke in praise of a documentary about smog that has taken China by storm.

Chen’s university profile says that much of his research was devoted to the problem of “uncertainty” in environmental engineering, and an ability to handle the unexpected could prove useful as he takes on one of China’s most challenging roles.

Campaigners said he was already in a better position than his luckless predecessor.

Regulations are likely to be easier to police with the ministry now seeking to plug China’s vast industrial heartlands into a real-time pollution monitoring system. A new environmental law also went into effect on Jan. 1, giving the country more powers to punish lawbreaking officials.

The market is also doing some of the ministry’s work, with an economic slowdown curbing growth in key polluting sectors such as steel and coal.

“With the public growing ever more hopeful for a better environment, nothing more could be on his side,” said Li Shuo, a Beijing based campaigner and researcher with Greenpeace. “This is a golden opportunity for him.”

Editing by Alex Richardson

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