China to appoint academic as new environment minister: report

Chen Jining, the head of a top Beijing University, faces a tough task to repair the government's environmental reputation if reports of his appointment as minister are confirmed 

The head of Beijing’s Tsinghua University is likely to be appointed to the top job in in China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), according to reports, as the country’s leadership moves to defuse public anger about worsening air, soil and water pollution.  

Tsinghua University president Chen Jining is expected to replace Zhou Shengxian as environment  minister, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday, the first time that a non-government official would be elevated to the post.

However, if he gets the job, the academic would face a major task in repairing the battered reputation of the ministry following strong criticism of Zhou’s record, when the MEP struggled to get to grips with environmental disasters including urban smog, widespread pollution of farmland and poisoned water supplies.

(You can read chinadialogue’s analysis of Zhou’s leadership of the MEP here: ‘Ministry we thank you’  and ‘China’s Environment Ministry an Utter Disappointment’)

"Chen would not only need to stop further environmental degradation, he’d also have to improve the ministry’s image, which was tarnished under Zhou’s reign," said a source close to the MEP quoted in the South China Morning Post report.

In 2013 Zhou said his ministry ranked among the world’s "four major embarrassing departments" but defended it from critics, saying it was hindered by overlapping functions in government.

The same year the National People’s Congress, the annual assembly of China’s communist top brass, gave Zhou the least support in its votes on the appointment of 25 ministers.

This year’s session of the NPC will be responsible for approving Chen’s appointment,  and at the same March congress, cadres will discuss China’s 13th five-year plan, which aims to foster sustainable growth and clean up some of the toxic legacy of China’s rapid economic expansion.  

Born in Jilin, in China’s far north-east, Chen has been educated to doctorate level in environmental science and engineering, including a stint at London’s Imperial College.

On his return to China, Chen rose through the ranks to take the top post at Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious academic institutions.  

"Over the years, his involvement in such advisory projects has made him familiar with many of the officials at the environmental ministry, which could also count as an advantage," the South China Morning Post’s source said.