It is perhaps the greatest challenge facing China: the runaway environmental degradation that is poisoning the country's skies, leveling its forests, and fouling its rivers. And until recently, there were few strong voices advocating a clean, green China, especially among Beijing's pro-growth, damn-the-consequences bureaucrats. But over the past two years one government official has stood up to the polluters. He is 45-year-old Pan Yue, vice-minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). Pan has taken on some of China's biggest industries over their pollution records and forced them to clean up.
Earlier this year, Pan surprised much of China when he ordered 30 projects -- with $14 billion in investment, ranging from thermal power to hydroelectric plants -- shut down for not filing proper environmental-impact statements. The projects included several under construction by Three Gorges Development Corp., the politically powerful company that is building the controversial Three Gorges Dam. That same month, SEPA publicly scolded 46 power plants for not installing required desulfurization equipment; some have since complied. Meanwhile, Pan has called for public hearings so that citizens affected by big development projects can discuss their environmental consequences -- an unusual level of openness in China. And to take into account the negative impact of environmental damage when calculating China's gross domestic product, Pan has advocated the adoption of a "green GDP."
Born in Jiangsu Province, outside Shanghai, Pan is the son of a military engineer. He worked as a journalist for years before becoming a government official -- and he has long been known for sticking his neck out. Several years ago Pan published an essay questioning the future of the Communist Party if it failed to reform. He acknowledges that his crusade for a greener China will attract opposition from powerful economic and political interests. Indeed, most of the 30 projects he targeted earlier this year have since resumed construction after paying small fines.
But Pan can take credit for igniting an important national debate on whether China is sacrificing its environment to its runaway growth. At an environmental conference in Beijing on June 18, he publicly questioned whether China should be proud of its reputation as the world's factory and called for a "green rise" of more environmental activism. "The pollution load of China will quadruple by 2020, when the country's GDP quadruples, if the pace of pollution remains unchanged," he warned at the conference.
Pan's may be a lone voice in the wilderness, but his message is one that other Chinese officials would do well to heed before it's too late.
By Dexter Roberts