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Assuming the Historic Mission of Building a More Beautiful China

By Sun Jinlong Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2022-05-12

The Resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century emphasized that ecological conservation is of vital importance to the sustainable development of the Chinese nation. It also pointed out the need to promote harmony between human and nature and for a coordinated effort to make the Chinese people prosperous and China a strong and beautiful country. 

I. The importance of environmental protection in CPC history 

Environmental protection is a recurring theme of the glorious century-long history of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Looking back at history reveals that the CPC has stayed true to its original aspiration and founding mission and constantly deepened its understanding of the basic principles governing the relationship between human and nature. It has led the people in tireless explorations to balance our population and resources as well as our economic development and environmental protection, and it has successfully nurtured a burgeoning environmental protection movement, which continues to go from strength to strength. 

In the 1950s, Mao Zedong proclaimed, "The Huaihe River must be harnessed," which led to the fledgling people's republic launching a project to manage the river. It also sparked efforts to prevent flooding along many of China's major rivers, including the Haihe River management project, Jingjiang River flood diversion project, Guanting Reservoir project, and the Yellow River management project. Around that time, Mao also issued a call to "Make China Green," which led the State Council to approve the establishment of China's first nature reserve at Dinghushan in 1956. In 1972, China sent a delegation to Stockholm for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. Afterward, Zhou Enlai stated that environmental issues could no longer be overlooked and must be added to the national agenda. In August 1973, China held its First National Conference on Environmental Protection, which set out a 32-character policy governing environmental protection work: "Overall planning; rational distribution; comprehensive utilization; turning harm into benefit; relying on the people; public participation; protecting the environment; and benefiting the people." 

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, environmental protection was written into China's Constitution, and the first law on environmental protection after the founding of the PRC—Environmental Protection Law of the People's Republic of China (for Trial Implementation)—was promulgated and implemented. The Second National Conference on Environmental Protection in 1983 established environmental protection as a basic national policy. The Third National Conference on Environmental Protection held in 1989 proposed eight systems of environmental management, including the use of environmental impact assessments. In the 1990s, China elevated sustainable development to the status of a national strategy. It also implemented the Trans-Century Green Project and declared war on environmental pollution and ecological damage. It launched major pollution control projects, such as those involving the "three rivers and three lakes" (the Huaihe, Haihe, and Liaohe rivers and the Dianchi, Taihu, and Chaohu lakes), and promoted major environmental protection projects, including the Three-North Shelterbelt Program and the protection and restoration of natural forests. Since the turn of the century, the CPC Central Committee has advocated the Scientific Outlook on Development and the development of a resource-conserving and environmentally friendly society, reducing total emissions of major pollutants and energy consumption per unit of GDP have become obligatory targets of economic and social development, and constant innovations in environmental protection have been made in the course of more sustainable development. 

In the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics, the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping at its core has made unprecedented efforts to advance ecological conservation, making it a priority of the Party and state. Ecological conservation is one of the five areas of focus of the Five-Pronged Overall Plan (the others being economic, political, cultural, and social development); upholding the harmonious coexistence of human and nature has been identified as a basic strategy for developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era; green development has become an integral part of the new development philosophy; prevention and control of pollution was designated one of the "three critical battles" (the other two being forestalling and diffusing major risks and carrying out targeted poverty alleviation); and building a more beautiful China is one of the objectives for creating a strong modern socialist country by the middle of this century. Under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee and the rigorous guidance of Xi Jinping thought on eco-civilization, the consciousness and initiative of the whole Party and the whole country for promoting green development have been significantly enhanced, strides have been taken toward building a more beautiful China, and China's environmental protection has undergone historic, transformational, and comprehensive changes, as encapsulated by the following "three unprecedented situations." 


A drone photo of sanitation staff conducting daily maintenance work on a waterway in Zhushan Village, Changxing County, Zhejiang Province, April 9, 2020. The idea that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets is guiding the green transformation of China's economy and society and has become a consensus driving action throughout society. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER XU YU 

The measures being implemented are unprecedented. 

We have made comprehensive efforts across the areas of theory, law, institutions, organization, and conduct to strengthen environmental protection in all fields, regions and processes; to promote the delineation of red lines for environmental protection, minimum standards for environmental quality and ceilings on resource utilization; and to launch a series of creative, forward-thinking and fundamentally important work. We have overseen the implementation of the major function zoning strategy and established a wide range of systems in regard to property rights for natural resources, the development and protection of territorial space, the assessment and accountability of ecological conservation objectives, providing compensation for giving priority to eco-conservation, the responsibility of river, lake and forest chiefs, and the arrangement that makes Party committees and government agencies both responsible for environmental protection and all officials assume responsibility for environmental protection in addition to their prescribed duties. Thanks to these efforts, we have largely established the basic institutions responsible for ecological conservation. We have formulated and revised over 30 laws on protecting the environment and natural resources, marking ongoing improvements to the legal system. The revised Environmental Protection Law passed in 2014 has been called the "strictest in history." 

Efforts have reached unprecedented levels. 

We consider green development an important part of the new development philosophy, so we are promoting spatial patterns, industrial structures, modes of production, and lifestyles that save resources and protect the environment. We have established a strict system of controls covering important ecological spaces so that these spaces do not change in character, become smaller, or lose their ecological functions. We have optimized the development and protection of territorial space and created a system of nature reserves composed mainly of national parks. We are continuing to conduct large-scale land greening programs across the country and have strengthened protection and management of ecosystems of major rivers and important lakes, wetlands, and coastal zones. We have also stepped up protection and restoration of ecosystems and conservation of biodiversity. 


Saihanba Forest Farm in Chengde, Hebei Province, September 23, 2021 (drone photo). Several generations of Saihanba foresters worked hard for over half a century to miraculously cultivate a lush swathe of forest on a barren wasteland where it was once said that "yellow sandstorms blot out the sun and birds cannot find a tree for shelter.” PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER JIN HAOYUAN 

We have made it a basic requirement that environmental quality must not worsen but must improve. We have been striving for a resolute victory in the battle to prevent and control pollution, moved forward with implementation of three major action plans for preventing and controlling air, water and soil pollution, and fought determinedly to keep our skies blue, our waters clear and our land pollution-free. We have launched a campaign to improve rural living environments and completely prohibited the importation of foreign refuse. We have launched central government agency inspections of ecological and environmental protection, resolutely investigated and dealt with major and typical cases of environmental destruction, and resolved prominent environmental problems of deep concern to the people. 

We enthusiastically participate in global environmental and climate governance and are solemnly committed to reaching peak carbon emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. We successfully hosted the 15th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15) and established the Belt and Road International Green Development Coalition. All of these efforts reflect China's willingness to assume the responsibilities of a major country. 

Our achievements have been unprecedented. 

The phased objectives and tasks for reducing pollution have been successfully completed. As a result, the quality of the environment has improved significantly, and the people can enjoy more blue skies, white clouds, clear water, and green shores. 

Between 2016 and 2020, the proportion of days with good or excellent air quality in cities at or above prefectural level increased 5.8 percentage points to 87%, the proportion of surface water assessment reporting good water quality increased 17.4 percentage points to 83.4%, and the rates of safe utilization of contaminated arable land and of contaminated sites were both above 90% for the country as a whole. 

In 2020, China's coal consumption as a proportion of total energy consumption fell to 56.8%, while the proportion of clean energy increased to 24.3%, with China leading the world in terms of installed capacity and power generation of both solar and wind energy. By the end of 2020, China's carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP had fallen by 48.4% compared to 2005, exceeding the target of a 40%-45% reduction. Forest coverage and timber reserves have both continued to increase for 30 consecutive years. Nature reserves now account for 18% of China's national land area, and areas preliminarily delineated as red lines of ecological protection account for more than 25%. 

In 2021, the northward migration and subsequent return of Asian elephants in Yunnan Province is a testament to China's attainments in biodiversity conservation. China's environmental protection achievements have been widely recognized by the international community, and our country has become an important participant, contributor, and leader in the movement to build a global eco-civilization. The Saihanba Forest Farm, which successfully transformed a patch of sandy desert into a thriving forest farm, and the Green Rural Revival Program in Zhejiang Province for beautiful countryside have both been awarded the UN's highest honor for environmental protection, the Champions of the Earth Award. 

II. Lessons and experience from the CPC's leadership of environmental protection 

The Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century summarized the historical experience of the CPC's 100 years of struggle. These experiences have been proved highly valuable as evidenced in our Party's efforts of environmental protection, and they have provided important lessons for building a more beautiful China. 

Uphold the CPC's leadership. 

The Party is the leading core of our cause. It started from the distinction between material and non-material culture before transforming into the "Three-Pronged" Overall Plan, which covered economic, political, and cultural development. This grew to four prongs with the addition of social development, and finally five prongs with the addition of ecological development. Ecological conservation is constantly progressing under the leadership of the Party. Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, in particular, the CPC Central Committee led by Xi Jinping has vigorously promoted innovations in theories, practices, and institutions related to eco-civilization, leading to a range of major strategic plans. Wherever President Xi goes, he expresses his concerns and exhorts others to think about ecological conservation and environmental protection. He has repeatedly stated the need to establish the idea that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets, to prioritize the environment and uphold green development, to pursue modernization characterized by harmonious coexistence between human and nature, and to build a more beautiful China with blue skies, verdant landscapes, and clean lakes and rivers. 

Uphold the primacy of the people. 

From the implementation of China's first pollution control measures after a water pollution incident at Guanting Reservoir on the outskirts of Beijing in 1972, to the comprehensive prevention and control of water pollution in the "three rivers and three lakes" in the 1990s, to the strict emission reduction targets set in the early 21st century, China's efforts to prevent and control pollution have constantly expanded as part of our efforts to create a positive working and living environment for the people. The Party's war on pollution has been particularly evident since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, as it has waged a battle for blue skies, clear waters, and pollution-free land and solved a raft of prominent environmental issues that have a direct bearing on public wellbeing. Thanks to these efforts, feelings of fulfillment, happiness, and security regarding the environment have grown stronger among the public, and the green credentials and quality of our moderately prosperous society have improved markedly. We have not yet reached the tipping point between quantitative and qualitative environmental change, however. There is still a sizable gap between the environment in China, on the one hand, and people's desire for a better life and the goal of building a more beautiful China, on the other. We must bear in mind that nothing is of more universal benefit to the wellbeing of the people than a healthy environment. To this end, we will continue to strive to prevent and control pollution, improve environmental quality, provide quality ecological products, and fulfill the public's growing demands for a beautiful environment. 

Uphold theoretical innovation. 

From Mao Zedong's suggestion to protect the environment and improve the efficiency of resource use, to Deng Xiaoping's emphasis on balanced development between human and nature, and from Jiang Zemin's insistence on implementing a sustainable development strategy in the course of modernization, to Hu Jintao's Scientific Outlook on Development, the CPC's understanding and philosophy of environmental protection have constantly evolved. Since the 18th CPC National Congress, President Xi has sought to integrate the tenets of Marxism with China's realities and its magnificent traditional culture. He has proposed a series of new ideas and new measures that have thoroughly answered important theoretical and practical questions concerning the why, what, and how of ecological conservation, systematically forming his concept of eco-civilization and raising to a new level the CPC's understanding of the principles of ecological conservation.


Whooper swans feed and swim in the rising mist at daybreak in the national nature reserve for whooper swans in Rongcheng, Shandong Province, November 28, 2021. So far, nearly 10,000 nature reserves of various levels and types have been established in China. XINHUA / PHOTO BY LI XINJUN 

Uphold the Chinese path. 

President Xi pointed out that China's socialist modernization has many important characteristics, one of which is the harmonious coexistence of human and nature, which focuses on simultaneously advancing material and ecological endeavors. If China's entire population of 1.4 billion is to join modern society, the old path of high energy consumption and high emissions followed by already industrialized nations, which puts unsustainable pressure on resources and the environment, must give way to a new path of green and low-carbon development. This is the only way China will achieve modernization. We must promote the concept that clear waters and green mountains are invaluable assets and protect the natural environment like we protect our own wellbeing. We must promote green, circular, and low-carbon development more consciously and continue to pursue a model of sustainable development composed of increased production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems. 

Uphold compassion for all humanity. 

Building a green environment is humanity's common dream. In the face of environmental challenges, humanity shares a common future, in which the prosperity or suffering of one affects all. China has ratified and implemented more than 30 multilateral conventions or protocols on the environment, and it is playing an increasingly prominent leading role in addressing global environmental challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss, strengthening its voice and influence on issues of global environmental governance. We must remain committed to the concept of a global community of shared future, uphold multilateralism, and get deeply involved in environmental governance. We must also conscientiously fulfill our obligations under international environmental conventions, vigorously promote environmental protection in the Belt and Road Initiative, and contribute Chinese wisdom and solutions to global sustainable development. 

Uphold the pioneering spirit. 

From the 32-character policy governing environmental protection work and eight systems of environmental management, to environmental indicators becoming obligatory targets of economic and social development, and further still, to the establishment of a system of institutions for ecological conservation; from the promulgation and trial implementation of the Environmental Protection Law in 1979, to forming a legal and regulatory system that covers major aspects of the environment, including air, water, oceans, soil, ecology, and nuclear safety; and from the establishment of the State Environmental Protection Agency under the Ministry of Urban and Rural Development and Environmental Protection in 1984, to the establishment of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment in 2018, China has constantly refined its system of strict laws and institutional mechanisms to guarantee environmental protection. We must continue to further reform of the ecological conservation system, revise environmental laws and regulations, and enhance the system of institutions for ecological conservation based on the principles of preventing pollution at the source, controlling processes, and punishing wrongdoing. We must also constantly modernize China's governance system and capacity for environmental protection. 

III. Achieving harmony between human and nature and building a beautiful China 

The 19th CPC National Congress in 2017 proposed that China should strive to become a modern socialist country by 2035, make fundamental environmental improvements, and ensure that goals for building a more beautiful China are achieved. The congress also proposed developing China into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and beautiful by the middle of this century. The Sixth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee set out clear requirements for the new era, emphasizing that the whole Party should persistently strive to achieve established goals. The 2022 Central Economic Work Conference clarified the overall requirements, policy trends, and key tasks of economic work in 2022 and formulated specific requirements on understanding the concepts of peak carbon and carbon neutrality. We must pursue progress while ensuring stability, root ourselves in the new stage of development, and fully and faithfully apply the new development philosophy. We must serve and support the new development dynamic, implement high-quality environmental protection to achieve high-quality development and a high quality of life, and contribute to the construction of a more beautiful China in which human and nature coexist harmoniously. 

Continue to improve environmental quality. 

We must fully implement the Guidelines of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council on Intensifying the Battle to Prevent and Control Pollution. To improve the quality of the environment, we must continue to adopt targeted, scientific, and law-based approaches to control pollution and never let up in our efforts, but rather expand and intensify them. We will set even higher standards in our fight for blue skies, clear waters, and pollution-free land and wage tireless struggles in eight symbolic battles, including those to eradicate heavily polluted weather, treat dark, fetid water bodies in cities, and control pollution in agricultural and rural areas. We must also focus on overcoming prominent environmental issues that impact the public directly and promote breakthroughs in keys regions, fields, and indicators of pollution prevention and control. 

Promote green and low-carbon development. 

In accordance with the arrangements of the Central Economic Work Conference, we need to integrate environmental protection with our overall efforts for economic and social development, have an accurate grasp of the general trends in environmental economics, and proactively create new ways and means to include environmental protection in macroeconomic governance. We must establish a sound economic structure that facilitates green, low-carbon, and circular development and advocate simple, moderate, green, and low-carbon lifestyles. We must strive to meet the targets set by the CPC Central Committee and State Council regarding peak carbon and carbon neutrality and improve the national market for carbon emission trading, including steadily expanding its coverage and increasing the methods and types of trading. We must focus on implementing major national strategies, such as the Yangtze Economic Belt and ecological protection and high-quality development of the Yellow River Basin, and occupy the high ground in green development. We will boost zone-based and region-specific environmental controls. We will strengthen red lines for environmental protection, minimum standards for environmental quality, and ceilings on resource utilization as well as environmental access lists, in the areas of policy formulation, access, management of industrial parks, and law enforcement and supervision. 

Strengthen supervision of environmental protection and remediation. 

We must persevere with the integrated protection and systematic management of mountains, rivers, forests, croplands, lakes, grasslands, and deserts. We need to implement major biodiversity conservation projects, improve the system of nature reserves composed mainly of national parks, and build a biodiversity protection network. We must strengthen supervision of nature reserves and environmental protection red lines, intensify supervision and investigations of environmental destruction in accordance with the law, and implement the Green Shield inspections of nature reserves. China will host the second part of COP 15 in 2022. We must seize the opportunities presented by being the host and presiding country, prepare for the conference to the best of our ability, and strive to formulate an ambitious but pragmatic post-2020 global biodiversity framework. 

Avoid and ameliorate environmental risks. 

We must be mindful of worst-case scenarios, regulate closely high-risk materials, such as hazardous waste, tailing ponds, and harmful chemicals, and establish a sound system for major risk assessment, early warning, and emergency response. China currently has 71 nuclear power units, with 53 in operation and 18 under construction. It is vital that we implement the strictest safety standards and levels of supervision at our nuclear plants, continuously strengthen safety management of operational plants and plants under construction, research reactors and applications of nuclear technologies, and develop our regulatory capabilities related to nuclear safety, to ensure our nuclear and radiation safety procedures are infallible. We must effectively address environmental protection related to long-term measures for controlling the spread of Covid-19 and achieve full coverage of medical institutions and facilities with environmental supervision and services as well as collection and treatment or disposal of medical waste and medical wastewater. 

Modernize environmental governance. 

We need to improve environmental protection laws, regulations, and rules and severely punish illegal and criminal acts related to the environment in accordance with the law. We must improve environmental economic policies and mechanisms for channeling financial capital into environmental protection and use a combination of finance, tax, and pricing policies to guide more social capital toward environmental fields. We will promote the management system involving permits for all stationary pollution sources and establish a supervision and law enforcement system as well as a self-monitoring mechanism for pollution discharging entities based on pollution permits. We will further improve central government environmental inspections as well as dual-level inspections at the central and provincial levels and reinforce routine and special inspections. To carry forward our Party's great founding spirit, fine traditions, and work style, we must select officials who are responsible, courageous, accomplished, and overachieving, in order to assemble a strong force capable of consolidating China's environmental protection efforts. 

Sun Jinlong is Secretary of the CPC Leadership Group of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People's Republic of China. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 4, 2022)