BEIJING/LINYI, China (Reuters) - An affable academic who cracks jokes and cycles to work, Chen Jining is the face of China’s clean-up, turning his environment ministry from “most embarrassing” to a powerhouse that has taken on those driving growth at all costs.
Chen is no free agent - his message is tightly controlled in a country where the environment remains a sensitive issue. He is monitored and chaperoned, and many question how much of the push comes from Chen himself, a quiet professor.
His enthusiasm last year for “Under the Dome”, a documentary about pollution, saw the film go viral and sparked a national debate, but Chen was quickly silenced and the film blocked.
Regardless, Chen’s power base continues to grow, industry executives and environmental observers say, as China cracks down on factories and polluting industries.
His elevation to the cabinet post was seen by ministry insiders and campaigners as a symbolic appointment, chosen by a government keen to appease public anger over damaging smog levels and environmental degradation with a young, telegenic outsider.
That anger coincides with a collapse in commodity prices and a corruption crackdown that has hit powerful players in oil, gas and resources, hurting those who campaigned for rapid economic growth.
That has left Chen, and the ministry that his predecessor called China’s “most embarrassing” government department, in the spotlight, and won him unusually broad public support.
“This is very rare,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Chinese environmental group, who has attended conferences with Chen. “The environment ministry used to give people the impression that they didn’t do anything. There’s been a major change in the past year.”
The ministry did not respond to a request for an interview with Chen.
Chen has made his mark by taking on local government officials who long shielded companies that brought in much-needed tax revenues.
Last year, his ministry summoned officials from 34 provinces and municipalities to account for environmental failures, according to a Reuters review of official data.
He now wants to keep up the pressure on local governments to implement environmental policies, revealing that as many 191,000 firms breached environmental rules last year.
“Provincial leaders - both party heads and governors - have felt the pressure of a more aggressive ministry, backed up by China’s top leadership,” said Li Yan, Beijing-based deputy programme director at Greenpeace, which has held discussions on pollution with the ministry.
Pushing on reforms started by his predecessor, Chen has overhauled a graft-plagued environmental impact assessment system by cutting the link between his ministry and its affiliated agencies that conducted the assessments.
But his ‘clean up’ message remains sensitive and painful on the ground, such as in the eastern city of Linyi, earmarked for environmental action within a month of Chen’s appointment.
For years a steel hub and scrap copper processing centre, Linyi was told last year to improve its air quality by moving factories - reversing years of new plant and industrial expansion.
Since then, local media has reported the shuttering of dozens of factories and the loss of at least 60,000 jobs. Official data shows economic growth slowed last year to just over 7 percent from 10.4 percent a year earlier. By one gauge, air pollution fell by around a fifth.
“Linyi is a strong exhibition of the government’s determination to achieve air pollution improvement targets,” said Greenpeace’s Li.
But at The Huasheng Jiangquan Group, an aluminium, steel and ceramics maker, the cost has been a six-month operational shutdown and around 100 million yuan ($15.2 million) spent on meeting stricter environmental regulations.
“Our company still hasn’t recovered from shutting down production this one time,” said one of the firm’s representatives in charge of environmental protection, a man surnamed Liu. “The losses were great.”
Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Brenda Goh, with additional reporting by Beijing and Shanghai Newsrooms; Editing by Clara Ferreira Marques and Ian Geoghegan