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The Chinese Path to an Ecological Civilization

By Ju Li Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2020-05-25

An ancient saying goes, "When the Yellow River is tranquil, all under Heaven is at peace." In a certain sense, the history of Chinese efforts to manage the Yellow River is also a history of the governance of the nation. In the run-up to the celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in late 2019, President Xi Jinping paid a visit to the nation's mother river to inspect environmental protection efforts in the Yellow River drainage basin and investigate some of the issues arising in the pursuit of high-quality development there.

For centuries, the Yellow River has been both the cradle of Chinese civilization and a constant source of disaster. Another old saying has it, "The Yellow River will breach its bank twice every three years, and once every 100 years will completely change its course." Yet in the 70 years from the founding of the new China up to the present, the river has never breached its banks. It has been 20 years since the main channel last dried up and 12 major floods have been withstood over that time. The Yellow River now runs calm. Of particular note is the decline in the amount of sediment carried by the river, once an astounding quantity. There has been a sharp drop from the highest annual figures recorded before the establishment of the PRC, reaching as high as 1.6 billion tons, to the present annual sediment load of around 200 million tons. This is close to the situation that prevailed in the time of primitive agriculture when human activity had no impact on sediment load.

That the ancient Yellow River has achieved a new life in the new China led by the Communist Party of China (CPC) is a vivid illustration of the building of a Chinese socialist ecological civilization over the last seven decades.

I. A historic leap in ecological thought

Economic development and environmental protection are important markers of the happiness of the people. The CPC, which seeks to bring happiness to the people, has always attached importance to both economic development and protection of the natural environment. In the early period after the founding of the PRC in 1949, at the same time as the first generation of CPC central leadership with Mao Zedong at its core made vigorous efforts to revive and develop the economy, they also set in motion the beginnings of inspiring endeavors in large-scale environmental governance and protection.

In July and August of 1950, the Huaihe River Basin flooded on a massive scale, the kind of disaster that occurs just once in 100 years. It caused enormous loss of life and damage to property. Mao Zedong wept in sorrow on hearing the awful news and issued a call: "We must tame the Huaihe River." Thus began eight years of tireless river management work, resulting in much improved flood control and management capacity along the Huaihe. Subsequently, Mao Zedong issued another stirring call, to settle properly management of the Yellow River. This inspired a determination and the ambition to achieve good governance of the country's major rivers among generations of Chinese people.

Figures show that between 1949 and 1952, China dug 1,037 kilometers of drainage channels and disposed of over 20 million tons of refuse. It was the beginnings of great improvements to sanitation in urban and rural China.

In 1955, Mao Zedong called on the people to "green the motherland", with a view to improving China's natural environment. Answering this call brought the transformation of Saihanba in Hebei through 50 years of hard work. Once desert, Saihanba became a beautiful expanse of forest.


The autumn scenery at Saihanba National Forest Park in northern Hebei Province. Excessive logging in the area throughout history gradually damaged the soil, allowing northern sandstorms to reach Beijing unhindered. In 1962, the Saihanba Forest Farm was established. Through three generations of hard work, forest coverage in the area increased from 11.4% to 80%. This man-made forest spanning tens of thousands of hectares now provides Beijing and Tianjin with 137 million cubic meters of clean water each year while releasing roughly 545,000 tons of oxygen. In 2017, those who built the Saihanba Forest Farm won the Champions of the Earth Award, the UN's highest honor for environmental protection.


Faced with the environmental problems large-scale economic development brought, Premier Zhou Enlai remarked that it was imperative China attached importance to environmental protection, and that as a country just starting to industrialize, China should not take the old path followed by already industrialized nations. He said China should seek to avoid the kind of environmental pollution seen in some of the industrialized nations of the West. If this could not be achieved, how could China show the superiority of the socialist system, Premier Zhou asked; would China deserve to be called a socialist nation?

The ecological ideas and practice evident in the way the founders of the PRC set about managing rivers and greening the nation reflect an environmentally-friendly ethos characteristic of members of the CPC. Many of the strategies and concepts remain the goals of present day efforts to build a more beautiful China.

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in June 1972. The Chinese government sent a very large delegation to take part.

China's first national conference on environmental protection was held in August 1973. The conference considered and adopted a set of draft "Regulations on Protecting and Improving the Environment." These made environmental protection part of the function of governments at all levels. The conference formulated China's first guiding policy on environmental work, known as the "32-character policy", which meant in English, "Overall and rational planning; comprehensive utilization; turning harms into benefits; relying on the people; public participation; protecting the environment; and bringing benefits to the people." This was a milestone for environmental protection in China.

As the great tide of reform and opening up swept the nation, the scale of industrial production and urban development expanded, bringing increasingly hard challenges for environmental governance and protection. People from all walks of life began to take a more serious interest in environmental issues. Over more than 40 years, China has formulated and promulgated a whole series of environmental protection policies and systems.

The second generation of CPC central leadership with Deng Xiaoping at its core placed emphasis on developing the rule of law and building organizations and institutions, elevating environmental protection to the status of basic national policy. This set down foundations that allowed environmental protection in China to be institutionalized, systemized and brought into the legal framework.

In 1978, the CPC Central Committee and State Council set out their strategic policy to develop the "Three-North Shelterbelt Program" in key regions suffering from sandstorms and soil erosion in northwest, north and northeast China. During the Sixth Five-Year Plan period (1980-1985), environmental protection was for the first time included as a component of the national economic and social development plan. At the Second National Conference on Environmental Protection convened in 1983, China formally made explicit environmental protection's status as basic national policy. In 1987, China issued its first ever five-year environmental program, the "National Environmental Protection Program for the Seventh Five-Year Plan Period (1986-1990)." From this point onwards, environmental protection became an important component of the plan for the national economy and development.

The third generation of CPC central leadership with Jiang Zemin at its core, in keeping with the tide of history and the trend in human social development, stated in clear terms that environmental protection was an issue of overall strategic significance affecting China's development over the long term, and that it was imperative that the implementation of a sustainable development strategy be treated as a matter of utmost importance. The 15th National Congress of the CPC in 1997 included the sustainable development strategy into its final report, with explicit confirmation that China's economic and social development would take a sustainable path. The 16th National Congress of the CPC in 2002, setting goals for the building of a moderately prosperous society in all aspects, stated the following: "sustainable development capacity must be continually enhanced, the natural environment must improve, and marked improvements must be made in the effectiveness of natural resource use." The statement of goals continued, "We must promote harmony between man and nature and our society as a whole must take a path to development that simultaneously grows production, enriches livelihoods and preserves an excellent natural environment." China's undertakings in environmental protection thus entered a stage of rapid development.


The Xixi Wetland. In 2005, Xi Jinping, then Secretary of the CPC Zhejiang Provincial Committee, first introduced the idea that "lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets." In recent years, Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang Province, has put this concept into practice by advancing work related to environmental improvement, optimization of the spatial layout, and the development of an eco-friendly economy as well as eco-friendly culture and institutions. On May 1, 2005, the Xixi National Wetland Park in Hangzhou was officially opened. The wetland has become a model of the idea that "lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets," serving not only as a leader of the trend to protect China's wetlands, but also an important base for putting the Beautiful China initiative into practice and building an ecological civilization.


The CPC Central Committee with Hu Jintao as the General Secretary proposed establishing and putting into practice a scientific outlook on development that was people-centered, comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable. The committee noted that in the process of economic development, full consideration needed to be given to the carrying capacity of resources and the natural environment as well as to the needs of both present and future development, so as to achieve a virtuous cycle in the interaction between the natural ecosystem and social and economic systems. At the 17th National Congress of the CPC in 2007, the major proposal to "build an ecological civilization" was brought forward for the first time. The principles, concepts and goals of building an ecological civilization were set out clearly, and since this represented an additional new requirement for the goal of building a moderately prosperous society in all aspects, the need to establish the idea firmly across society was stressed. Building an ecological civilization was to entail creating the fundamentals of an industrial structure and models of growth and consumption that would use energy and resources sparingly and preserve the natural environment.


Top: The Liangshui River after remediation. PHOTO BY LIU XINWU

Bottom: The Liangshui River before remediation. XINHUA / FILE PHOTO

The Liangshui River was once the largest wastewater runoff in southern Beijing. With sewage pumped directly into the water, the river became badly polluted, with local residents calling it "Sewage River." In 2013, comprehensive remediation of the river officially began, and as a result of efforts to get dark and foul areas of water under control and turn land into green space rather than redeveloping it, the long-polluted river is now recovering. Its waters have become clear and its banks have become beautiful, with numerous riverside parks and walking paths giving local residents a sense of fulfillment. 

Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, the central leadership with Xi Jinping at its core has made the building of an ecological civilization part of its "five-pronged" overall plan for developing socialism with Chinese characteristics. This has raised the concept to an unprecedentedly high strategic level. A whole series of new concepts, new ways of thinking and new strategies have been brought forward, emphasizing that when the natural environment thrives, civilization thrives too. There is a firm commitment to harmony between man and nature, to the view that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets, and to the notion that nothing is of more universal benefit to the well-being of the people than a fine natural environment. There is a firm belief that mountains, rivers, forests, fields, lakes and grasslands form a biotic community. There is a strong commitment to implementing the strongest laws under the strictest system to protect the natural environment, and to having the whole public take part in building a beautiful China. There is a further commitment to working together to build a global ecological civilization. Together, these firm commitments constitute Xi Jinping's concept of ecological civilization.

Xi Jinping's thinking on ecological civilization is a rich and complete system, providing profound answers to the major theoretical and practical questions of why ecological civilization must be built, what it will be and how it is to be achieved. Under the scientific guidance of President Xi's thought, there have been historical, transformational and comprehensive changes in the development of the cause of building China's ecological civilization. This has further meant that since the Eighteenth National Congress of the CPC, the strengthening of pollution control, frequency of promulgation of new rules, strict monitoring and enforcement related to pollution control and speedy improvements to the natural environment have reached unprecedented highs, to global acclaim.

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