BEIJING (Reuters) - China has appointed Chen Jining, the president of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, as party chief of its environment ministry, since the controversial current incumbent is retiring, the ministry said on its website on Wednesday.
Chen, 51, an environmental specialist and a member of the National Environmental Advisory Commission with no previous government experience, replaces environment minister Zhou Shengxian.
Zhou’s decade as China’s top environment official has coincided with the massive degradation of the nation’s environment, with surging industrial and energy output putting huge pressure on air, rivers and soil.
Chinese media have criticized Zhou, 65, for not reining in industrial polluters or taking responsibility for scandals ranging from rice contamination to chemical spills in drinking water and thousands of dead pigs found in a Shanghai river.
Zhou replaced Xie Zhenhua, who resigned after a benzene plant explosion contaminated the water supplies of several million people in northeast China.
In 2013, he also faced an unprecedented number of negative votes during his ministerial re-election by China’s rubber stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress. Online polls also showed a majority of China’s netizens wanted him gone.
Smog levels in China’s cities have exceeded official measurement scales on several occasions in recent years.
Several independent studies have found China faces major health problems from its polluted air, with more than 1 million people dying prematurely each year, and life expectancy in some places dropping by as much as 5.5 years.
China’s focus on economic growth has also led to huge problems with polluted water and soil, despite Zhou on numerous occasions pledging he would lead an all out war against environmental degradation.
“It is a disgraceful lifestyle to drive a BMW but have only dirty water to drink,” he told the China Daily newspaper in 2009.
Reporting by Stian Reklev and David Stanway; Editing by Clarence Fernandez