Delegates to the mainland's rubber-stamp legislature finally got a chance to express their grievances over rampant pollution in votes yesterday as Beijing was once again shrouded in smog.
Balloting on the new line-up of the National People's Congress' environmental protection and resources conservation committee saw 850 opposition votes and 125 abstentions, about a third of the total votes.
Most of the almost 3,000 NPC deputies greeted the result with a long boo, before clapping as the line-up was approved.
It was one of the lowest approval rates in NPC voting since a plan to construct the massive Three Gorges Dam was endorsed in 1992. About two-thirds of 2,633 deputies at the time voted for the dam, while 177 opposed it and 664 abstained.
Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian also won the least recognition from deputies, receiving 2,734 votes of approval, the lowest among 25 ministers appointed yesterday.
The unusually strong opposition vote showed that even the mainland's legislators - one-third of whom are government officials - can no longer bear its filthy air and water.
The votes came as official readings from environmental authorities showed the air in Beijing was severely polluted for most of the daytime yesterday, while the United States embassy rated the air as "very unhealthy" or "hazardous".
Professor Zhou Wenbin, an NPC deputy who is also the president of Nanchang University in Jiangxi province, said the results reflected the public's unhappiness with the environmental situation.
"We need to change our development model, we can't blindly go after GDP any more," he said "In some places, they develop all sorts of industries just for the sake of boosting GDP, including the polluting and energy-consuming ones. But now we have to make a choice."
Environmentalist and writer Liu Jianqiang wrote on his microblog: "The NPC deputies - despite all kinds of problems - know too well who's not doing a proper job."
Environmentalists lamented that the minister had failed to live up to public expectations and take on polluting companies, even though the Ministry of Environmental Protection had been turned from a toothless administration into a fully fledged cabinet agency five years ago.
"The ministry did so little, sometimes it even shielded polluters," Liu said. "But the minister stays."
The mainland's environment has worsened over the past five years even though the authorities said that pollution control targets had been met, with public protests against polluting projects becoming more frequent and complaints over air and water pollution rising.
But Zhou Wenbin defended the ministry, arguing that pollution could not be tackled without the involvement of the agriculture ministry and other departments and industrial regulators.
"The environment problem is something that has accumulated over a long time," he said. "In the end, people blame the environment ministry but that's not completely fair."