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The Chinese Path to an Ecological Civilization

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

II. A historic leap in environmental protection

In 1972, the pioneering environmental organization the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth. The book sounded an alarm about the traditional Western model of growth and predicted the threat of environmental collapse. It helped spark a worldwide upsurge in environmental protectionism.

Forty years later in 2012, the Club of Rome published an authoritative new report based on the ongoing follow-up research of one of the authors of The Limits to Growth, Jorgen Randers—"2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years." The new report remained as pessimistic in its conclusions as its predecessor, finding reasons for optimism only in China's path to development and future prospects.

The great confidence he felt in the Chinese government's capacity for environmental management and macro control was cited by Randers as a major reason. He believes that the shortsightedness of capitalism makes it incapable of implementing sensible policies that ensure long-term interests, whereas China's longstanding practice of implementing five-year plans and its green transformation allow it to be a country capable of achieving long-term goals in a systematic fashion.

Global environmental researchers have arrived at this verdict based on China's ongoing positive environmental practice over the past 70 years since the founding of the PRC. The verdict also represents a rethinking of the Western model of environmental management that has been a trap for humankind, and expresses hopes for something different. The source of those hopes is the strength of Chinese socialism under the leadership of the CPC.

Protection of the natural environment must be backed by regulations and laws. President Xi has noted that a dependable guarantee for the building of an ecological civilization can be provided only by implementing the strictest possible systems and most rigorous legal framework.

For 70 years now, China has continuously deepened its understanding of the laws governing environmental protection and the building of an ecological civilization, steadily putting in place the institutional framework for a socialist ecological civilization with clear Chinese characteristics.

In legal terms, China added the clause "The state protects the environment and natural resources and prevents and eliminates pollution and other hazards to the public" to the Constitution as early as 1978. In 1989, the National People's Congress passed the Environmental Protection Law. This was followed in 1995 by the Law on the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution Caused by Solid Waste, the 1996 revision of the Law on Prevention and Control of Water Pollution, the 1999 revision of the Marine Environment Protection Law, the 2000 revision of the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law and the Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Law passed in 2018. A system of laws and regulations spearheaded by the Environmental Protection Law covering all major parts of the environment such as air, water, soil and the natural environment is now in place in its essentials. Further revisions were made to the Environmental Protection Law in 2014, introducing new measures including a system of ongoing daily fines, powers to seal off and detain, powers to limit or stop production, administrative detention and public interest litigation. It is regarded as the strictest environmental law history has ever seen.

President Xi has repeatedly emphasized the need to implement the strictest systems and most rigorous laws for environmental protection and to accelerate innovation in regulation and rigor in enforcement, so the system becomes a hard constraint; a bottom line no one dares to cross. When it comes to environmental protection, any transgressions must be met with punishment.

The CPC Central Committee has issued a series of documents setting out systemic norms for environmental protection, proposing the creation of a resource-conserving, environmentally-friendly society and the vigorous development of a circular economy. The documents also include calls for stronger protection of nature and the environment and enhanced resource management. They include proposals for the creation of systems with an associated regulatory framework for calculating, monitoring and assessing the efforts to conserve energy, reduce energy consumption, and lower pollution emissions. This new emphasis has been particularly apparent since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, as ecological civilization was written into the Party and national constitutions, an ecological red line was added to the Environmental Protection Law and environmental security was included in national security systems. A series of measures such as the Guidelines for Accelerating the Development of Ecological Civilization and the Integrated Reform Plan for Promoting Ecological Civilization have been issued, and more than 40 reform plans relating to ecological civilization have been drafted. Comprehensive and systematic arrangements for building an ecological civilization—its overall objectives, basic concepts, main principles, key tasks, and institutional safeguards—are now in place.

Systems for the assessment of ecological development targets; audits of natural resource assets under each official's purview when they leave their post; and the accountability for environmental damage are now implemented and a system of major functional zones is steadily taking shape. Rapid progress has been made in creating environmental governance systems. These include vertical management of the monitoring, supervision and enforcement carried out by environmental protection agencies at sub-provincial level; controlling the quality of environmental monitoring data; the issuing of emissions permits; the appointment of responsible officials for rivers and lakes; and a prohibition on importing foreign waste into China. There has been smooth progress in the drafting and implementation of environmental economic and financial regulations including green finance reform, balance sheets of natural resource assets, a levy of environmental protection taxes, and compensation for environmental protection.

Since the introduction of these stricter environmental protection measures, there has been a continuous increase in the rigor of their implementation. The CPC Central Committee itself conducting supervision of environmental protection represents a major move to reform and an important institutional arrangement capable of strengthening environmental protection and advancing the building of an ecological civilization.

The first round of supervision work carried out between the end of 2015 and 2018 resolved more than 150,000 environmental issues encountered by ordinary citizens in their day-to-day lives, and also resolved more than 2,100 larger environmental issues. In 2018, the CPC Central Committee Environmental Supervision Team carried out "look-back" reviews in 20 provinces and regions. A wave of accountability swept China, with over 10,000 people called to account. In 2019, the second round of supervision work got underway.

The shocking case of environmental damage in the Qilian Mountains was one of those brought to light by this environmental protection supervision work.


A drone photo of the East Lake Greenway in Wuhan, Hubei Province. The Yangtze River is the golden axis of Hubei Province's economic development. Hubei is currently taking systematic steps to promote the integrated restoration of mountains, waterways, forests, fields, lakes and grasslands. By implementing a number of key environmental projects such as the Yangtze River shelterbelt initiative, soil erosion remediation, and conservation of rivers, lakes, and wetlands, the province has greatly improved the Yangtze River ecosystem and continuously raised the river's water quality. Hubei has actively explored ways to capitalize on its natural assets, and focused on strengthening ecological barriers protecting the middle reaches of the Yangtze River. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER XIAO YIJIU 

III. A historic transformation in environmental governance

On May 18, 2018 at a major national conference on environmental protection, President Xi Jinping called on the CPC and the people of China to be resolute in the fight to prevent and control pollution, unhesitating and unflinching, decisive and with backs-to-the-wall courage, and to go all out to capture the prize no matter the hardships involved.

Since the founding of the PRC, and particularly since the launch of the reform and opening up, industrialization and urbanization have proceeded at an astonishing pace. Unfortunately, due to a failure to balance the needs of economic development and environmental protection, some places at times have taken the wrong path, allowing pollution to be cleaned up later or polluting and cleaning as you go along. The economic growth model has been too crude, energy and resources have been rapidly depleted in a way the resources cannot sustain nor can the environment bear. It has also been too much for society to endure and has often stymied future development.

President Xi issued a warning: even if we are able to double GDP by pursuing a crude course of development, how will that leave the environment? It would be too much for the resources and environment to bear. What sort of situation will China be in if economic growth comes at a cost to public happiness or even at the risk of widespread resentment? President Xi pointed out that the building of an ecological civilization, improved environmental protection and advocacy for a low-carbon lifestyle are not merely economic questions. There is a great deal of politics involved as well.

In 2018, the CPC Central Committee and the State Council issued their Guidelines on Comprehensively Enhancing Eco-environmental Protection to Completely Win the Battle Against Pollution, setting out holistic arrangements for environmental protection and winning the fight against pollution. With this clarion call to prevent and fight pollution, the campaign to stop polluting the water, air and soil began in earnest.

There has been steady advancement in the control of water pollution and enhancement of preventive capacity. China has issued a series of regulations and standards, including the Law on the Prevention and Control of Water Pollution, Integrated Wastewater Discharge Standards and the Standards for Surface Water Environment Quality. The country has promulgated an Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Water Pollution (known as the "Ten Water Regulations" for short) and brought out the National Plan for Water Pollution Prevention and Control in Key River Basins (2016-2020). China now implements an overall plan for land and water and joint planning for maritime and river environments, advancing the prevention and control of water pollution, protection of the water environment and management of water resources in a systematic fashion.

Control of air pollution is also moving forward, having a readily apparent impact on preserving clear skies. The vigorous efforts to prevent major air pollution incidents are there for all to see. In 2013, the State Council brought out its Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (known as the "Ten Air Regulations" for short) aimed at widespread severe air pollution China had long experienced. This set out overall demands, targets and policies for air pollution control. In 2018, a further plan—the Three-Year Action Plan for Blue Skies—was drafted, and a leading group on air pollution prevention and control in Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei and neighboring regions was established. Collaboration mechanisms for air pollution prevention and control were set up in the Fenwei Plain and Yangtze Delta. These working mechanisms allowed the rapid determination of the top-level design and overall governance arrangements. Through optimization of industrial, energy sector, transport and land use structures, excellent outcomes have been achieved in air pollution prevention and control.

Steady progress is being made in prevention and control of soil pollution, with advances made in the battle for clean soil. Over the past 70 years, China has conducted numerous surveys of soil pollution and land use. In 2016, the State Council brought out its Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (known as the "Ten Soil Regulations" for short), China's first guiding document on the prevention and control of soil pollution. Subsequently a series of other measures were introduced, including the Interim Measures on Soil Environmental Remediation in Contaminated Sites, the Interim Measures on Soil Environmental Remediation of Agricultural Land, and the Interim Measures on Soil Environmental Remediation of Industrial and Mining Use Land. The Law on the Prevention and Control of Soil Pollution promotes the establishment of pioneer regions for the integrated control and prevention of soil pollution, implementing trial programs for soil pollution prevention and control and restorative techniques. These statutes give clear legal guarantees for prevention and control work. China has established the beginnings of a technical standards framework for soil pollution prevention and control, such as the Standards for Soil Environment Quality and the Standards for Soil Environmental Quality Evaluation in Land Used for Food Crops. The promulgation of a raft of policies and drafting of numerous sets of standards have allowed soil pollution prevention and control to enter a new stage where soil quality is guaranteed side by side with the control of environmental risks.

China's pollution controls have grown ever stronger over the past 70 years, with great strides in the growth of inputs to this endeavor. In the early 1980s, China's annual investment in environmental pollution prevention and control was between 2.5 billion yuan to 3 billion yuan. By the end of the 1980s that figure had exceed 10 billion yuan. By the latter stages of the Ninth Five-Year Plan, overall investment had reached 101 billion yuan, exceeding 1% of the GDP for the first time. In 2017, China's total investment in the prevention and control of environmental pollution amounted to 953.9 billion yuan, an increase of 7.2 times on the amount for 2001 and an annual rate of increase of 14%.

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at Australian National University, Professor Frank Jotzo wrote an article for UK newspaper The Guardian. Professor Jotzo noted that pointing to the growth in Chinese emissions might have made sense decades ago, but enormous changes have now taken place in the country and in many respects China's environmental policy is now far in advance of Australia and the United States.

IV. An historic transformation in ecological achievements

For 70 years, China has maintained an equal stress on environmental protection and pollution management, implementing a series of major environmental programs such as natural forest protection and returning marginal farmland to forest or grassland. The country has advanced the development of a system of nature reserves composed mainly of national parks, marking out a bottom line in ecological conservation. This emphasis has been still more pronounced since the 18th National Congress of the CPC. There has been innovation in the systematic protection and restoration of mountains, rivers, forests, croplands, lakes and grasslands; also the launching of a nationwide greening program. This has meant ongoing strengthening of the national ecological safety barrier, bringing clear improvements in the stability and quality of ecosystems. China's environment has achieved a historical transition from piecemeal localized improvements to coordinated overall improvement. The Chinese homeland grows ever lovelier and its people feel a sense of fulfillment, happiness and security.

Forest cover has grown from a mere 8% in the early years of the PRC to today's 22.96%, with a timber volume of 17.56 billion cubic meters, making China the country with the largest growth in forest resources in the world. The rate of protection of natural wetlands has risen to 49.03%, winning high praise from the international community. There has been a complete turnaround in desertification; deserts were growing by 3,436 square kilometers annually at the end of the last century, but today are shrinking at the rate of 1,980 square kilometers each year. China is now the country with the most marked success in controlling desertification in the world. Satellite data released by NASA on February 11, 2019 showed that new vegetation coverage in China accounts for fully 25% of the global increase, making the country a world leader in this regard.

In the management of water bodies, the proportion of sampling sections showing good quality in China's surface water continues to rise, while that showing poor Grade V water quality is falling. There is a steady improvement in water quality in China's major rivers. In 2018, of 1,935 surface water sampling sections or points in China, 71% met Grade I-III quality standards, 3.2 percentage points up on the figures for 2016. The proportion showing poor Grade V quality was 6.7%, a fall of 1.9 percentage points from 2016. Of 417 seawater testing points in China's coastal waters, 74.6% reached national seawater quality standards of Grade I or II, an increase of 1.2 percentage points from 2016.

There has been continued innovation in methods for pollution control and prevention, an ongoing expansion of sectors operated in an ever-increasing vigor in the work. In 2005, China's sulfur dioxide emissions were up 27.8% on 2000, an historical highpoint. By 2010 that had turned around; sulfur dioxide emissions were down 14.3% on the 2005 figure and chemical oxygen demand down 12.5%, exceeding targets set in the 11th Five-Year Plan. In 2015, these figures fell again, as sulfur dioxide emissions were down 18% on 2010 and chemical oxygen demand down 12.9%, both surpassing targets set for emissions controls. In 2018, the figures were again down compared with 2017, falling 6.7% and 3.1% respectively. By vigorously implementing a triple policy of programmatic, structural and managed emissions reduction, significant achievements have been made in reducing pollutant emissions.

In just six short years of implementation from 2013 up to 2018, the "Ten Air Regulations" saw the first batch of cities begin PM2.5 monitoring and an overall average drop in PM2.5 concentrations of 41.7%. The past few years have seen the most conspicuous improvements, with figures for 2017 down 20.5% year-on-year and down 12.1% year-on-year for 2018. The figures for January to August 2019 were likewise down 14.3% year-on-year. In 2018, the proportion of good air quality days in 338 of China's cities at prefectural level or above reached 79.3%. With the introduction of Clean Air Action Plan (2013-2017) in September 2013, the capital declared war on smog. Employing a raft of control measures, in 2018 annual average PM2.5 concentrations were 51 micrograms per cubic meter, a fall of 42.7% on the comparable figure for 2013.

A clear contrast can be drawn with London, where a smog incident in 1952 led to 30 years of efforts by the UK government before the city was no longer known for peasouper smog. Los Angeles experienced similar major smog problems in 1943 and it took 64 long years until the city finally met clean air standards in 2007. The public health hazards from smog in Yokkaichi in the 1960s led the Japanese government to begin enacting controls of sulfur oxide in the air. It took 35 years for the 1975 figure of 50 micrograms per cubic meter to fall to 2010's 21 micrograms.

Be it in comparison with China's own past or with the experience of other nations, one can scarcely find precedent for the importance attached to environmental governance, the vigor with which the work has been undertaken and the rapidity of improvements to the environment since the 18th National Congress of the CPC.

China's green path to development has attracted global interest and the endorsement of the international community. At the 27th session of the Governing Council of the United Nation Environment Program (UNEP) in 2013, the Chinese-originated concept of ecological civilization was included in one of the resolutions adopted. Three years later, the UNEP issued a special report, "Green Is Gold: The Strategy and Actions of China's Ecological Civilization" that gave full endorsement to the enormous achievements China has made in building an ecological civilization and the global significance this has.

In November 2015, President Xi Jinping attended the Paris Climate Conference, where he delivered a major speech entitled "Work Together to Build a Win-Win, Equitable and Balanced Governance Mechanism on Climate Change", displaying a sagacity and willingness to shoulder responsibility suited to a great nation. In December, after much hard wrangling, the milestone Paris Agreement was formally signed. Then UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said that China had made a historic contribution in pushing through the Paris Agreement. China, as always, has taken an activist role in responding to climate change and promoting the development of a global ecological civilization, shouldering the responsibility of leading from the frontlines while being fully aware of the hardships involved, making known Chinese philosophical ideas and helping steer a path along the road forward. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 21, 2019) 

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