Sunday, Jun 25, 2017, 3:11 AM CST – China

Society

Environmental Corruption

First to Fall

The recent downfall of Zhang Lijun, vice minister of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, may be a prelude to an extended anti-graft campaign that draws out corruption within the nation’s environmental agencies

Zhang Lijun Photo by IC

Zhang Lijun’s precipitous career trajectory stunned onlookers. In three years’ time, he went from being a factory’s technician to its deputy director. Later in his career, it took him just five years to leap from serving in a provincial environmental office to working for the country’s highest environmental government body. So when news broke on July 30, 2015, that Zhang’s most recent title, vice minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), had been revoked, and that he was under investigation for “serious legal violations,” people were once again stunned, but this time by his abrupt downfall.

Since the nationwide anti-corruption campaign launched in 2012 on the back of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, officials from many different government bodies have been exposed for corruption. Zhang is the first “tiger” from the nation’s environmental departments to fall from grace.

Rising Up

After he graduated in 1975 with a degree in non-ferrous metallurgy from China‘s Northeastern University, Zhang worked first as a factory worker and technician before working his way up to become county leader of Shulan County in the northeastern province of Jilin. In 1989 he was promoted to chief of the Jilin Provincial Environmental Protection Bureau. Four years later, he was posted to Beijing.

1993 was an important year for Zhang Lijun. Without any prior experience working in the media, Zhang was appointed the director of China Environment News, a Beijing-based newspaper that is directly affiliated with what is now called the Ministry of Environmental Protection. He took another step forward in 1997, becoming the head of the national environmental protection agency’s financial planning division.

 Staff members from China Environment News told NewsChina that Zhang Lijun was a very “enterprising” official when he was the head of the newspaper. They said Zhang had tried to divert some money allotted for the newspaper to different business operations, but added that the investments all failed to turn a profit.

Zhang’s role in environmental bureaucracy gained wider recognition after he successfully handled an environmental disaster in November 2005. A series of explosions took place at a petrochemical plant in Jilin, which resulted in over 100 tons of toxic chemicals draining into the Songhua River, a tributary of the Amur, which partly demarcates the Sino-Russian border.

As the deputy chief of China’s top environmental body, at the time called the National Environmental Protection Agency, Zhang was in charge of pollution control and prevention. In the aftermath of the explosions, apart from conferring with the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Agriculture on certain issues, Zhang was responsible for coordination with Jilin’s local government bodies. Furthermore, there was significant pressure from the Russian side, urging China to contain the spread of pollution.

To soothe China’s northern neighbor, Zhang met with Russian representatives and promised to provide them with efficient water-testing equipment according to their requirements. Zhang promised that China “will try to meet Russian inquiries regarding this water pollution issue through any means possible.” Then both China and Russia sent six professionals to join the other’s team, and together they worked on monitoring the water pollution. All updates on the situation were made accessible to Russian media.

With Zhang’s effective emergency control and PR savvy, the Songhua River pollution incident was deemed effectively under control.

In 2008, when the National Environmental Protection Agency was given more importance by being elevated into the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), Zhang, accordingly, became the vice minister. Yet insiders disclosed to our reporter that Zhang earned the lowest number of votes during the ministry’s internal election process.

Emission Doubts

As MEP vice minister, Zhang was in charge of many departments, including pollution control, emission reduction and environmental inspection. According to inside sources, his downfall is closely related to his management policy for automobile emissions standards and the way these standards were initially established.

China has been one of the world’s top automobile markets for years. As a result of the sharp rise in the number of cars on Chinese streets, vehicle emissions have become a key contributor to the country’s deadly air pollution.

The total number of motor vehicles in China jumped from 13 million in 1997 to over 250 million in 2013. Over a period of 16 years, while Zhang was working at the MEP, China’s automobile industry experienced a historic boom.

Zhang’s policies surrounding automobile emissions control, however, did not reflect the changing times. It was not until 2009, during the Two Sessions, the annual meetings of China’s top legislative body and top national advisory body, that Zhang admitted to the press that the country’s deteriorating air quality was directly related to the increasing number of cars on the road.

Han Yingjian, former chief engineer at the MEP’s Vehicle Emission Control Center, told our reporter that regulated testing of vehicle exhaust is the best method to ensure vehicle emissions meet national restrictions and thus reduce contributions to automobile-related pollution.

Domestically, the test most commonly accepted for assessing vehicle exhaust is called the Accelerated Simulation Mode (ASM) vehicle emissions test, which analyzes data gained through simulating real, on-road operations like braking, accelerating and decelerating. This testing method is widely regarded as being more reliable than previous exhaust tests on stationary, unloaded vehicles.

In the mid-2000s the national environmental protection bureau altered the national standard and technical requirements to include ASM testing. However, these standards and requirements were implemented later only as “recommended” principles, rather than “compulsory” ones.

Han Yingjian told our reporter that without meeting the aforementioned national standards and requirements, the quality of testing is diminished, and the test results lack precision. Inaccurate results could further impede local governments’ and environmental organizations’ decision-making.

A source who works for the MEP told our reporter that the ministry had organized a series of meetings with experts to figure out how to promote and implement the new standards, but in the end the requirements for testing equipment were left largely unaltered. The source said this was supposedly caused by top decision makers within the environmental bureau who intentionally kept admittance criteria low so as to allow inferior testing equipment to enter the market.

Muddy Results

Consequently, second-rate exhaust testing equipment is widely used. Yao Shengzhuo, a teacher at Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture’s School of Mechanical-electronic and Automobile Engineering, told our reporter that in 2011, the MEP did a nationwide inspection on over 1,000 testing institutions, more than 200 of which conducted illegal or irregular testing. In an article written in late 2014, Yan Ziqing, of the China Association of Environmental Protection Industry, wrote: “There are over 4,000 sets of equipment used to test motor vehicle exhaust emissions through the ASM method across the country, 90 percent of which are knock-off products, with a margin of error of up to 30 percent or higher.”

Shenzhen Anche Technologies, a leading seller of ASM testing equipment in China, allegedly has close ties with Zhang Lijun, according to media reports. The company was established in 2006, and it planned to be listed in 2014, yet failed to do so due to reports claiming it has used false advertisements and fabricated production certifications. As of press time, NewsChina did not find more information or evidence proving a relationship between Zhang and the company.

This past February, at a national-level environmental conference, new MEP minister Chen Jining vowed to combat corruption within the environmental sector. According to a knowledgeable source, Zhang’s case may merely be the first tug on the thread, and soon more stories of corrupt officials tangling up the MEP will unravel. 

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