By David Stanway and Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING (Reuters) - Pan Yue, a high-profile official with a history of taking on big state-owned interests, has emerged as the front-runner to become China's new environment minister, sources said, amid growing public discontent over worsening pollution in the country.
Pan, a former journalist, is tipped to take over from career bureaucrat Zhou Shengxian when Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang forms his new cabinet during the annual session of parliament which begins on Tuesday, three independent sources familiar with the matter said.
"A recommended list (of cabinet ministers) lists Pan Yue as the environmental protection minister. But this is not final and could change at the last minute," a source with ties to the leadership told Reuters.
With China desperate to show it is determined to tackle its pollution problems, the appointment of the popular Pan would help build confidence in the country's environmental protection bodies and their ability to rein in some of the country's most powerful industrial interests.
Public anger over air pollution that blanketed many northern cities in January has spread to online appeals for Beijing to clean up water supplies as well. Across the country, to the government's alarm, social unrest spurred by environmental complaints has become increasingly common.
Pan has routinely criticized China's excessive focus on growth and the weakness of its environmental watchdogs, saying the country's obsession with economic expansion had created a massive "environmental overdraft".
But the 53-year-old has paid the price before for his outspoken comments.
Also, the environment ministry still faces formidable odds in the face of China's complex bureaucracy and weak enforcement of laws. It lacks the authority to take on big state-owned enterprises, including oil firms, and local governments.
"If Pan Yue is appointed minister, it would give real credibility to (incoming President) Xi (Jinping)'s message about wanting people who get results and don't just talk," said Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has studied China's environmental problems.
Parliament spokeswoman Fu Ying said on Monday that the largely rubber stamp legislature would tighten two environment laws during its annual session by linking protection efforts with local government performance evaluations and further reining in emissions.
Pan's possible promotion would also represent a significant upturn in fortunes since his career stalled in 2008 amid political opposition and personal difficulties.
In the middle of the last decade, when he served as the deputy director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), Pan was feted by the domestic and foreign media as a fearless campaigner against giant government-backed polluters, but his stance created enemies.
"Many saw him as too liberal, but he has restrained himself in recent years," a second source with leadership ties said.
His profile reached a climax in 2005, when he confronted dozens of powerful state-owned enterprises. The crux of the row was SEPA's power to enforce its rules, with the state giants arguing they were directly subject to the State Council and therefore not obliged to comply with SEPA rules involving environmental impact assessments.
The media heralded Pan the victor after the Three Gorges Project Corp, the powerful state-owned developer of the world's biggest hydropower project on the Yangtze River, was ordered by the State Council to comply with SEPA following a week-long stand-off.
In 2006, he also took on the China Petrochemical Corp (Sinopec) and the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), the parent of PetroChina, the country's two biggest oil firms, in a drive against water pollution.
And in 2007, Pan again turned his attention to China's big state-owned power firms, including Datang Power, Huadian Power and Huaneng Power, all accused of failing to comply with SEPA regulations.
Known in the Chinese media as "environmental protection storms", the campaigns pitted China's relatively weak environmental agency against some of the most powerful interest groups in the country -- including Huaneng, formerly run by the son of Li Peng, China's influential former premier.
In 2008, while still a vice-minister at the newly established Ministry of Environmental Protection, Pan was stripped of most of his public responsibilities, and restricted to handing out awards, launching awareness campaigns and making speeches.
Pan's public criticism of powerful state interests might have been the main reason his career stalled, but his divorce from a daughter of prominent military official Liu Huaqing did not help, the sources said.
Liu, who died in 2011, was navy commander from 1982 to 1988 and credited with its modernization. He was also a member of the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee - the apex of power in China - from 1992 to 1997.
But after years of lying low, Pan's confrontational style could now make him the right man for a very difficult job, and help head off growing public anger about the state of the country's rivers and skylines.
"Certainly his appointment would give a real boost to the prominence of the environment within the government bureaucracy," said Economy. "Overall, it would be a big win for environmental activism."
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)