The news that Mr. Pan Yue, Deputy Minister of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, will soon move to a new position outside the environmental apparatus (a promotion) leaves many people with mixed feeling. In his capacity as a deputy environment minister for the past 13 years, he has been a symbol of the Chinese government’s green commitments, winning himself the unforgettable nickname “Hurricane Pan” (an allusion to the numerous high-profile campaigns he waged to crackdown on polluting industries).
While he pioneered many initiatives that are later considered groundbreaking (his creation of a Green GDP system is one of them), one legacy of his could be easily overlooked especially after an extended period of low public visibility of him in recent years. It is his articulation of a kind of environmentalism that is so organically Chinese that it takes deep root in China’s national environmental narrative without being noticed. Today, upon the departure of Hurricane Pan from the environmental field, it is a good moment to review that mark he has left.
In 2007, Pan made a speech in front of a group of young students which was later published online as an article. It was at the height of his reputation as China’s “environment tsar”, and he demonstrated an eloquence unparalleled among Chinese bureaucrats. The article provides an interesting snapshot of Pan’s thinking on an issue that has occupied a special place in his heart ever since he became one of China’s first environmental journalists in the 1980s.
Unlike mainstream environmental narratives of the West, which often have Nature at the heart of their concern, Pan’s message is one of national rejuvenation. The fundamental issue he grapples with is not the relationship between Man and Nature, but the one between the environment and the Nation. Titled “Green China and Young China”, the article tells the audience that China has reached the stage where continued environmental disasters not only degrade its natural resources and harm its economy, but also hamper its prospect of (re)rising into a great nation.
He places China’s current environmental crisis in the same historical vein as the imperialist invasion of the country in early twentieth century and its self-inflicted political turmoil during Mao’s time. He maintains that every generation of Chinese in the past century shoulders their own historic mission in overcoming the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and bring the country back to its rightful place in history. And the new generation will have to grapple with their own: the environmental challenge. Such elevation of the environmental issue might seem self-serving. After all, Pan was at that time the spokesperson of a weak ministry badly in need of attention and resources. But much of his “scaremongering” predictions then, that the environmental crisis would quickly worsen to shake the country’s still wobbly economic foundation, proves to be prescient after the world watched first-hand how apocalyptical air pollution shrouded large part of the country in a matter of a few years after the article was published.
What’s striking in Pan’s vision of national rejuvenation, beyond the possible intention of mobilization for support, is that it does not just inherit an old-fashioned narrative of “enriching the country and build up its muscles”, but develops an alternative vision that contains a set of distinctive aspirational features such as social justice, democracy and sustainability. In this line of thinking, the environment adopts another layer of significance, serving as the Chinese society’s “laboratory” to experiment on some of these elements.
This is probably Pan’s biggest contribution to China’s environmental field: the direct linkage of environmental protection with a set of broader progressive agenda items. In his own words: “Every aspect of the environmental issue today mirrors an aspect of the Chinese society in general. And every solution to it is an experiment to reform China.” The greening of manufacturing is a step towards the upgrade of China’s industrial capabilities; Ecological compensation, the practice of downstream regions paying upstream regions for its ecological services, is a pilot for larger social justice initiatives; Public participation in environment-related decision making lays the foundation for reforms in governance structure.
The 2005 controversy over the seepage-proofing of a lake in the Old Summer Palace became a showcase of Pan’s “laboratory” metaphor. In that case, the Old Summer Palace administrative office irritated the public for its project to cover the bottom of its historic lake with impermeable membrane, in an attempt to prevent water loss. Environmental groups were concerned that it would destroy the ecosystem of that area. They were even more outraged by the fact that the project had already been underway without undergoing a proper environmental impact assessment. Pan’s agency seized upon the opportunity and pushed the Old Summer Palace administration to redo a proper impact assessment for the lake project. Moreover, they went one step further by organizing an unprecedented public hearing for the assessment, inviting the park administration, NGOs, researchers and the press to openly debate the merit of the project. When commenting on the case, Pan said that he would like the case to be a demonstration of the agency’s transparency and respect for procedural integrity.
It is probably not too far-fetched to say that Pan’s “experiment” narrative opens up political space for the country’s nascent environmental movement. By connecting the field with noble objectives of nation-building, Pan lends it newfound legitimacy. The result is a relatively free atmosphere where advocates can touch on broader governance issues such as information disclosure and procedural rights in ways that their counterparts in other issue areas do not enjoy. Years later, when China’s dominant environmental narrative has turned more personal and right-based (the emergence of NYMBYism is an example), Pan’s “environmental nationalism” may seem a bit vintage. Yet it is exactly because of that legitimacy early on that a more diverse discourse on the environment can take hold.
There are elements of Pan’s environmental thinking that are more idiosyncratically his. For instance, he believes that environmental problems are fundamentally rooted in ethics and culture, and should be addressed in such dimensions. His critique of the country’s ecological plight is morally charged, accusing people of a single-minded, short-sighted pursuit of materialistic wealth, without regard for their moral responsibilities. His invocation of Confucian values as a way to approach the era’s fundamental challenges reflects not just a nationalistic leaning, but also a conviction that problems in the material world originate from the heart. Such a moral and cultural critique of China’s environmental crisis has largely been absent after the passing away of prominent environmental intellectuals such as Liang Congjie (founder of Friends of Nature, China’s earliest environmental NGO). In a field that is now filled with discussions over technical fixes and policy configurations, a look back at Pan’s words from 2007 serves as a reminder of the multi-dimensional nature of China’s green conundrum, and the different possibilities in intervention.