Sun, Sep 26, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Fighting to make China greener

MAN ON A MISSION Throughout his career Pan Yue has relished debate. Now he's arguing publicly that China must seriously tackle its environmental problems


Pan Yue, deputy director of China's top environmental agency, in his Beijing office in June.


For the untold thousands of bureaucrats in the Chinese Communist Party, a cardinal rule of political self-preservation might be this: best not stand out too much, certainly not in public. A government official marching too far ahead of the parade of acceptable opinion runs the risk of finding himself dangerously alone.

So it is always a surprise to see what comes out when Pan Yue opens his mouth, as he did one afternoon this summer at his office at the State Environmental Protection Administration.

The afternoon sky was clotted with the usual soup of haze and pollution as Pan ticked off one doomsday statistic after another.

Acid rain, he says, now falls over two-thirds of China's land mass. Of 340 major Chinese cities surveyed last year, 60 percent had serious air pollution problems.

In China's seven major waterways, pollution is so severe that vast stretches are not suitable for fish.

"Problems that were supposed to be future problems are now problems in the present," warned Pan, 44, as he smoked a cigarette.

If he is blunt in identifying the problems, he sounds almost radical in offering a solution: China must change the way it is developing to prevent an environmental crisis and a depletion of natural resources. Environmental protection must become a national priority.

And, for good measure, public participation must be encouraged -- the sort of language that in China usually means more democracy.

"The pressures China is now facing simply can't be sustained, the population and resource pressures," Pan said. "They cannot be ignored."

National stature

Well known for years in intellectual circles, the outspoken Pan has become a national figure in a country where environmental awareness is rising, even as environmental degradation is widespread and severe. His job as a deputy director of China's top environmental agency, if low down the totem pole of power in China, has given him a bully pulpit to help put environmentalism on the agenda -- apparently with the silent blessing of higher leaders.

"He's considered much more outspoken, much more specific," said Edward Norton, head of the Nature Conservancy in China. "He's definitely out front, much more than anybody in that agency or the other resource management agencies."

Pan, who has dark, spiky hair and looks a bit like a Chinese version of the Canadian actor Mike Myers, is quoted so often in the Chinese press that he has become the de facto spokesman of the environmental agency. If he were a US bureaucrat, he might be considered a media hound. In China, he is a rarity.

"I've always been known as a very frank speaker," said Pan, smiling.

Environmentalists in China have long worried, and warned, that a day of reckoning is coming. Historically, China has never put much emphasis on environmental protection. Yet a quarter-century of unbridled economic growth has brought not only new wealth but a legacy of blackened rivers, grossly polluted skies and dwindling natural resources.

But top officials like President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) have started talking about the need for environmental protection as part of a "sustainable development" model for the country. In speaking out, Pan seems to have sensed that the political climate is shifting. His agency lacks the political clout of other government ministries but his message is increasingly in vogue, particularly among college students and the urban elite.

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