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Zhou was born in Wuzhong, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. He joined the Communist Party of China in 1972, and is a senior economist. He began his career as a middle school teacher. Eventually he rose to become Secretary-General of the Ningxia Autonomous Regional government, then Vice-Chairman of Ningxia, then he became deputy director of the State Forestry Administration.
He became Minister of Environmental Protection in 2008, after the ministry was reformed from the Environment Protection Bureau. The ministry was given more powers than the Bureau. He left office as environmental protection minister in 2015 due to having reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 for minister-level officials. Since then he has become a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and sits on the Committee of Population, Resources and Environment.
Zhou was an alternate member of the 16th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and a full member of the 17th and 18th Central Committees.
- "China warns officials against fudging emission survey figures". Times of India. 21 December 2010. Retrieved 27 December 2010.
| Minister of Environmental Protection
March 2008 – February 2015