China has appointed a former environmental protection official famous for taking a tough stance on local interests to head its ethnic affairs office . Pan Yue, 62, was announced as party chief of the National Ethnic Affairs Commission on its website on Saturday. The office is responsible for drafting laws regarding China’s policies towards its ethnic minority groups and implementing those laws and regulations. Pan will be the second official from the Han majority to take charge of the ethnic affairs body. Since 1954 and until 2020, the office had been held by officials from one of the country’s many ethnic minority groups, starting with Ulanhu, a renowned ethnic Mongol general whose name could be translated as the “red son of Communism”. Since then the National Ethnic Affairs Commission has been led by Hui, Uygur, Korean and Mongol cadres. Having a minority in charge of the commission nominally affirmed China’s long-standing ethnic minority model, in which they are supposed to be granted autonomy over their own affairs. US accused of ‘playing ethnic card’ to sow discord in China The tradition was broken in 2020 , when Chen Xiaojiang, an official from the party’s formidable anti-corruption body, was placed in charge. It remains unclear what Chen’s new role will be. In his new role, Pan will be the enforcer of President Xi Jinping’s version of “forging a sense of community of the Chinese nation”, which calls for greater integration of members of ethnic minorities to put the interests of the Chinese nation first. China’s treatment of minority groups has attracted growing international criticism in recent years – especially in Xinjiang where it is accused of detaining a million Uygurs and other Muslim minority groups in reeducation camps and using forced labour. Beijing has defended its policies as being designed to counter extremism and terrorism. Pan is best remembered by many as having led a fierce campaign to challenge polluters backed by local governments. In 2005 he halted 30 massive government-backed projects that failed to file proper environmental impact assessments, including a hydropower plant on the upper stretches of the Yangtze River by the China Three Gorges Corporation. His bureau was upgraded to become China’s first Ministry for Environmental Protection in 2008. Hui Muslims trigger storm by wearing traditional dress to ethnic unity event He left the ministry in 2016 and has also worked for the Central Institute of Socialism and United Front Work Department, which manages relations with non-party bodies. Pan’s appointment was announced as part of the preliminary reshuffles in the run up to the 20th Party Congress, which will see a major overhaul of the country’s top leadership. Earlier this month, a new head of the body that oversees religious affairs was appointed. Cui Maohu, secretary general of the Yunnan provincial party committee, takes over from Wang Zuoan as director of the National Religious Affairs Administration. Cui is new to religious affairs and has a background in provincial and personnel matters. A new role for Wang has not been announced.