'I dare to express different views'
When Wang Shucheng spent his leisure time practising a telegraphic code and watching the dance troupe led by classmate Hu Jintao perform revolutionary routines at Tsinghua University some four decades ago, little could he imagine he and his classmates would take up such important roles in the government one day.
'Who would think of becoming a minister or state president at that time? But I think several of us stood out from the youngsters. We had a pretty good performance and a pretty good relationship with the masses,' Mr Wang, who is expected to retire as water minister, said of his nine years at university.
Mr Wang and his classmates were the elite of their generation. There were only about 2,000 postgraduate students in the county at that time and about 30 of his classmates from the hydraulic engineering department are now senior officials in government departments.
'Many ministers were also university students before the Cultural Revolution and we have all reached retirement age.'
Mr Wang has spent his entire career dealing with water. He first worked as an engineer at hydroelectric power stations. 'When we were sent to construction sites, we carried our blankets and slept at the sites just like other workers,' he recalls.
Before being appointed water resources minister, he spent 20 years as an official in charge of the hydropower industry.
He was in charge of rebuilding dams and providing rehabilitation for hundreds of thousands of displaced people after massive flooding ravaged China in 1998, and also witnessed other important events and projects, including the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Diversion Project.
But he was not particularly excited about the gigantic projects. 'I don't have any sense of pride with any project, although I have seen the launch of many.'
He was not involved in the Three Gorges Dam project, he said, as that was the responsibility of an office set up specifically for its planning and construction.
As for the South-North project, Mr Wang said: 'That was the effort of many people over several decades. I can only say I have insights into its management and the volume of water flow.'
Mr Wang said he was more passionate about formulating a system to help China use water more efficiently and allocate water according to the resources available, or, in his own words, shifting to resources-oriented water management and building a water-saving society.
He said he was trying to strike a balance between hydroelectric power projects and environmental protection, while steering the country towards more efficient utilisation of water resources. But introducing such concepts to his ministry was not an easy job and Mr Wang felt the process was like litigation in a court room.
Many water resources officials, he said, were trapped in the old concept of 'project-oriented water management', an obsession with launching new projects.
'When there are projects, there are funds and there are political brownie points,' he said. 'When I first became water resources minister, provincial officials came to Beijing to see me and reported to me what projects they wanted to launch. When there are projects, the provincial governments can easily get billions of yuan of funding. But when I asked them what kind of problems the projects could solve, few would tell me the projects could help solve problems with water resources.'
Mr Wang said he was also surprised that few officials from his ministry paid attention to droughts and the drying up of the Yellow River when he first joined the ministry.
'They believed the ministry should deal with flooding but drought was a matter for Mother Nature.'
Mr Wang said he faced much resistance when he tried to introduce the new concepts, particularly when he advocated the 'peaceful co-existence of man and nature'.
He said when he heard President Hu had mentioned 'peaceful development of man and nature' at the Third Plenum of the 16th Central Committee of the party in 2003, he felt he had 'won a lawsuit'.
Mr Wang admitted he was often torn between his role as an expert in water resources and as an official.
An example was the criticism he received when he publicly said a proposal to divert water from Tibet was not feasible.
'People said ministers should not take a stance. But as an expert in the area, how could I not take a stance?'
Mr Wang said he was most proud of his efforts to change people's concepts about water management and advocating a more environmentally friendly approach to developing hydroelectric power at dams and reservoirs, although they would not alone ensure China's water supply.
He maintained that most of the dams built in the past had been effective, except the Sanmenxia Reservoir, a noted failure.
Mr Wang described himself as an outspoken person, even before state leaders.
'I dare to express different views even before state leaders. But my success rate at receiving funding from the government remains high,' he said, citing his proposal to help 300 million people who still have no access to safe drinking water.
'It is to do with people's livelihood and they are willing to pay.'