High-Ranking Retired Environmental Protection Official Mired in Corruption Probe

Retired Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) Vice Minister Zhang Lijun has run afoul of the ongoing corruption crackdown, becoming the highest-ranking environmental official yet to be investigated.

On Thursday, China’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), announced details of the probe.

“Zhang Lijun, former Vice Minister for environmental protection and member of the ministry’s Party group, is under investigation for serious breaches of discipline and law,” the CCDI said on its website.

Zhang, 63, retired from the MEP two years ago. He previously served as deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Agency in 2004, and four years later was promoted to Vice Minister with the granting of ministerial status to SEPA (now known as the MEP) in 2008. He held that post until his retirement in 2013.

According to China Business News (CBN), Zhang and other unnamed parties are accused of taking advantage of their positions to influence policy decisions, build networks of influence, obtain bribes, and undermine market competition.

CBN reported allegations made in a letter sent by a whistleblower claiming that one of the MEP’s “higher-ups” (Zhang) had conspired with an official at the MEP’s Department of Pollution Prevention and Control to profit from selling fraudulent quality control certification, and had fixed emissions standards and outcomes of what were meant to be competitive tenders. The letter also alleged that Zhang had participated in the sales of fake and shoddy monitoring equipment.

According to the media report, the letter emerged around the same time the CCDI was preparing its investigation.

The letter said Zhang and others set up a so-called expert group, responsible for evaluating bids to supply equipment for vehicular emission monitoring. In every case, one of three companies linked to Zhang was awarded government contracts to the exclusion of other contenders holding national patents.

According to the whistleblower, “thanks to Zhang’s influence, three companies benefited by over 2 billion yuan [$322 million].” There were also accusations of links with organized crime, and the use of faked car accidents and detentions to scare off competitors.

According to reports, Zhang often commented on air pollution in Beijing after his retirement, saying it would take a minimum of 15 years to deal with the problem. Zhang also liked to tell the media that vehicle emissions—an area where he is claimed to have a major commercial interest—were the main culprit for the capital’s smog.

In February this year, the Central Leading Group for Inspection Group, an agency linked with the CCDI, spoke publicly of corruption in decision making on environmental issues, particularly in the area of environmental impact assessments (EIAs).

Investigators found numerous cases of construction proceeding without EIA approval, or changes made post-approval, that had resulted from regulatory failures or corruption. Furthermore, they found some officials or their relatives had interfered in approvals processes and were involved in companies that handled environmental assessments.

In May, China’s government issued its “Opinions on Further Promoting the Development of Ecological Civilization,” calling for officials to be held to account for damage to the environment and natural resources caused by their actions. It also advocated that punishments be imposed even long after officials had retired or moved to other posts.

The investigation of Zhang Lijun suggests this system is now in operation.

During his time at the MEP, Zhang enjoyed the trust of Minister Zhou Shengxian, and he was placed in charge of critical areas including dealing with pollution, cutting particulate emissions, and enforcement of environmental law.

When the U.S. Embassy in Beijing started publishing PM2.5 levels in 2008, it was Zhang who called this “interference in China’s internal affairs.”