China official defends "embarrassing" environmental protection ministry

Sui-Lee Wee PlanetArk 10 Jul 13;

China's environment minister said his ministry ranked among the world's "four major embarrassing departments" but defended the agency, saying it was hampered by overlapping functions in government, state media said on Tuesday.

The comments by Zhou Shengxian are the latest in a string of blunt admissions by Chinese leaders that the country still has a long way to go in tackling pollution.

Public anger over smog that blanketed many northern cities in January has spread to online appeals for Beijing to clean up water supplies, especially after the rotting corpses of thousands of pigs were found in March in a river that supplies Shanghai's water.

Social unrest spurred by environmental complaints is becoming common across the country, to the government's alarm.

"I've heard that there are four major embarrassing departments in the world and that China's ministry of environmental protection is one of them," state news agency Xinhua's official microblog account quoted Zhou as saying.

"Our environmental work involves many departments. Many of the functions are overlapping," Zhou said, adding that water, land and carbon output were all managed by different ministries.

Despite Xinhua later removing a reference to Zhou's remarks describing the agency as an embarrassment, his comments spread widely on China's other state media microblogs.

Zhou, a two-term environment minister, has presided over China's worst pollution in recent memory.

He received among the fewest votes from China's lawmakers in the race for the cabinet at this year's meeting of the National People's Congress, a largely rubberstamp parliament body.

Zhou said he was worried about the public health impact of dire pollution contaminating the air, soil and water, Xinhua said.

"The current challenge facing the environmental (authorities) is how to properly deal with the environmental problems caused by economic development," Zhou said.

China routinely vows resolve in cleaning up pollution, but little is ever done, mainly for lack of enforcement in the face of a drive for corporate profits.

Chinese microbloggers mocked Zhou's comments, underscoring how far the agency has fallen in public esteem.

"Of course it's an embarrassment. What is originally a department for environmental protection has become an environmental protection department that conceals!" a microblogger wrote on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

Many Chinese have expressed disquiet over the scarcity of available information about the environment. The environment ministry denied a lawyer access to soil pollution data because it was a "state secret".

Air pollution is shortening the lives of people in northern China by about 5.5 years compared to those in the south, the disastrous legacy of a policy to provide free heating coal in the north, an international study showed.

(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Nick Macfie)