Adhering to the Chinese Modernization Path of Harmony Between Humanity and Nature
The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held in October 2022 expounded the theory of Chinese modernization, emphasizing the need to advance the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation on all fronts via a Chinese path to modernization and pointing out that Chinese modernization is the modernization of harmony between humanity and nature. The congress also stressed the need to uphold and act on the principle that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets and to maintain harmony between humanity and nature when planning development. This represents an important innovation in modernization theory, the latest theoretical innovation of Xi Jinping Thought on Ecological Conservation, and a practical requirement for advancing ecological conservation.
I. The logic of the modernization of harmony between humanity and nature
Since its 18th National Congress, the CPC has built on existing foundations to make innovative breakthroughs in theory and practice that have successfully advanced and expanded Chinese modernization.
From a theoretical perspective, the theory of harmony between humanity and nature in Chinese modernization is the crystallization of the wisdom of Marxism adapted to the Chinese context and the needs of our times
The cornerstone of this theory is Marxist thought on the relationship between humanity and nature. Marxism states that “man lives on nature” and humanity lives, produces, and develops by continuously interacting with nature. Chinese President Xi Jinping inherited and developed this Marxist thought, which he has combined with the specific realities of ecological conservation in China to propose the modernization of harmony between humanity and nature. President Xi’s innovation explains the interdependence between humans and the natural world, as well as their mutually reinforcing dialectical unity, and it is a succinct expression of contemporary Marxism in China as well as 21st century Marxism in the area of ecological conservation. The ecological wisdom embodied in China’s traditional culture constitutes the national soil and cultural roots of the theory of harmony between humanity and nature in Chinese modernization. Always respecting and loving nature, the Chinese people have cultivated rich ecological elements in the culture during more than 5,000 years of Chinese civilization. President Xi has developed philosophical concepts from traditional Chinese culture, such as the unity of humanity and nature and “The Dao follows what is natural,” and integrated the essence of Marxist thought with the best of China’s traditional culture and with the common values that our people intuitively apply in their everyday lives, thus infusing modernization theory with distinctive Chinese features and adding original contemporary elements to traditional Chinese culture.
Tongmu Village, located inside Wuyi Mountain National Park, May 17, 2021. This park was among the first five national parks announced by China in 2021, along with the Sanjiangyuan National Park, the Giant Panda National Park, the Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park, and the Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park (drone photo). PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER JIANG KEHONG
From a historical perspective, the theory of harmony between humanity and nature in Chinese modernization is the distillation of the CPC’s experiences of modernization
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the CPC has led the people in arduous explorations to achieve the modernization of China, including theoretical and practical investigations of how to approach the relationship between humanity and nature. Mao Zedong pointed out that the CPC’s task is to focus on building modernized industry, agriculture, science and culture, and national defense. He also called for conservation of mountains and rivers as well as afforestation. In the new period of reform and opening up and socialist modernization, the CPC noted the multifaceted nature of modernization and the need for an overall balance between various initiatives, with the emphasis on finding a path that strikes a balance between nature and human development and developing a resource-conserving, environmentally friendly society. The CPC has accumulated valuable experience from the theories it composed in various historical periods to manage the relationship between humanity and nature in the course of modernization. In the new era that began in 2012, the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping at its core has adopted the overall approach of achieving the sustainable development of the Chinese nation. It has fully grasped the key role and strategic significance of ecological conservation to socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, strived to promote theoretical, practical, and institutional innovations related to ecological conservation, and introduced a series of creative new ideas, new thinking, and new strategies. All of this has culminated in the formation of Xi Jinping thought on ecological conservation, which has opened up a new realm of development in the topic.
From a practical perspective, the theory of harmony between humanity and nature in Chinese modernization is a vivid illustration of the great practice and achievements of ecological conservation in the new era
Since the 18th CPC National Congress, the Central Committee and the State Council have formulated and implemented the functional zoning strategy and issued and implemented the Integrated Reform Plan for Promoting Ecological Conservation. Major progress has been made with the development of a property rights system concerning natural resources, a system for the development and protection of territorial space, integrated plans for China’s territorial space, a system for the regulation and comprehensive conservation of resources, systems for the paid use of natural resources and for the provision of environmental compensation, an environmental governance system, a market system for ecological conservation, and a performance evaluation and accountability system pertaining to ecological progress. The legal system for ecological conservation has been improved. Effective steps have been taken to develop and protect China’s territorial space and coordinate the tasks of drawing redlines to protect ecosystems, agricultural land, and permanent basic cropland and of delineating urban development boundaries.
Further efforts have been made toward a national park-based nature reserve system, including integrating and establishing nearly 9,200 nature reserves and setting up the first batch of five national parks. The systematic management of mountains, waters, forests, farmlands, grasslands, and deserts has been promoted, and 44 projects have been implemented that take a holistic approach to conserving and improving such ecosystems, resulting in the restoration and improvement of 53,700 km2 of land. Expansive land greening programs have continued, leading to an increase in China’s forest coverage from 21.63% in 2012 to 24.02% in 2021, which was the largest increase in forest resources of any country in the world in that period. A comprehensive conservation strategy has been implemented, which led to falls in energy consumption per unit of GDP, water consumption, land consumption (area of land allotted to construction), and carbon dioxide emissions by 26.4%, 45%, 40.85%, and 34.4%, respectively, between 2012 and 2021.
Efforts have been made to achieve victory in the battle to prevent and control pollution, resulting in sustained improvements to the quality of our atmosphere, water, and soil. The central authorities have launched government environmental inspections and natural resource inspections and resolutely investigated and addressed severe and typical cases of damage to the natural environment, solving a raft of issues of deep concern to the people.
China remains actively involved in global governance of natural ecosystems, including proactively yet prudently promoting peak carbon and carbon neutrality objectives and hosting conferences of the parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Convention on Wetlands. China’s Saihanba afforestation community in Hebei Province and the Green Rural Revival Program in Zhejiang Province both won the UN Champions of the Earth Award. China’s Shan-Shui Initiative (for the integrated conservation and restoration of mountain, water, forest, farmland, grassland, and desert ecosystems) was selected as one of the UN’s first batch of 10 World Restoration Flagships. As President Xi says, if humanity does not fail nature, nature shall never fail humanity. A healthy natural environment has infinite economic value, as it provides endless returns and enables sustainable socioeconomic development. China is in the stage of high-quality development, and we have one of the highest economic growth rates among the major economies. This is ample proof of the feasibility and stability of the modernization path of harmony between humanity and nature, which is the correct path to build China’s strength and achieve national rejuvenation.
II. The main requirements for the modernization of harmony between humanity and nature
Since the 18th CPC National Congress, the CPC Central Committee led by Xi Jinping has, from an entirely new perspective, deepened its understanding of the principles that underlie governance by a communist party, the development of socialism, and the evolution of human society, achieving major theoretical breakthroughs. Modernization featuring harmony between humanity and nature, which has been incorporated into the theoretical system of Chinese modernization, is an essential element of the Chinese path to modernization and the new form of human advancement.
Chinese modernization of harmony between humanity and nature is modernization that promotes ecological conservation under the CPC’s overall leadership
Since the start of the new era in 2012, the CPC has prioritized ecological conservation in its overall work and achieved remarkable results that have attracted worldwide attention. On the new journey, we must uphold the CPC’s leadership, ensure that Chinese modernization secures enduring harmony between humanity and nature, patiently advance the course of history, maintain a firm strategic resolve, and ensure successive progress from generation to generation. We must uphold the strictest possible systems and most rigorous legal framework to ensure that decisions and arrangements of the CPC Central Committee establish firm roots and generate actual results. We must constantly reform institutions and mechanisms related to ecological conservation to eliminate weaknesses and provide an endless source of vitality to the modernization of harmony between humanity and nature, thereby creating broad prospects for advancing the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
Chinese modernization of harmony between humanity and nature is modernization that responds to the tight constraints posed by resources and the environment
China has an enormous population that exceeds the total population of the world’s developed countries. Nevertheless, our per capita resources and factors of production are below the global average levels, and we have limited and unevenly distributed land suitable for living and working as well as a lack of focus on ecological protection and restoration in the past. We also face new challenges, such as global climate change and frequent extreme weather events. Our population has peaked, and we are experiencing population aging, declining fertility, and varying regional trends of population growth and decline, all of which are having a profound impact on our management of territorial space. We must improve our awareness of the issues we face and approach problems, make decisions, and act based on our national conditions. We must fully consider resource and environmental carrying capacities and endowments and keep developing new thinking, new approaches, and new ways to effectively resolve problems.
Chinese modernization of harmony between humanity and nature is modernization featuring green, low-carbon, and sustainable development
In the modern era, the modernization of Western countries has largely been at the expense of resources and the environment. In addition to creating substantial material wealth, it has led to issues including environmental pollution and resource depletion, which have created tension between humans and the natural environment and seen nature take merciless revenge at times. To promote modernization of harmony between humanity and nature, we must strive to avoid the environmental issues that have arisen in the course of Western capitalist modernization and renounce the old approach of “pollute first, clean up later.” We must stay committed to green, low-carbon development and adhere to the basic requirement of pursuing protection amidst development and development amidst protection. We must also allocate resources equitably and rationally within and between generations, so that the present generation and those to come can enjoy abundant material wealth while also being able to enjoy stars in the night sky, lush mountains, and fresh flowers.
Chinese modernization of harmony between humanity and nature is modernization featuring collaboration between people to achieve and share the benefits of environmental wellbeing
Similar to economic development, protecting the environment is about improving people’s wellbeing. The fundamental objective of the modernization of the harmony between humanity and nature is to serve and benefit the people. In addition to creating greater material and cultural wealth to meet people’s ever-growing requirements for a better life, it also provides more quality ecological goods to meet people’s growing demands for a beautiful environment. We need to strive to achieve simultaneous growth in our material and ecological wealth by promoting the transformation of ecological strengths into development strengths and the transformation of ecological wealth into material wealth. We must make ecological conservation a conscious choice of the people so that everyone becomes a protector, contributor, and beneficiary of the environment.
Chinese modernization of harmony between humanity and nature is modernization featuring harmony between the production, living, and ecological spheres
Land is a scarce and singular resource that is involved in production, living, and ecological activities, making it essential that we manage multiple objectives and strike a balance between development and protection and between current and future interests. We must apply systems thinking and pursue a model of sound development featuring improved production, higher living standards, and healthy ecosystems. We need to devise an overarching plan for the development and protection of our territorial space, methodically arrange production, living, and ecological spaces, and strive to make our production spaces intensive and efficient, our living spaces friendly and reasonable, and our ecological spaces beautiful and unpolluted. We need to strengthen basic requirements, safeguard natural ecological boundaries and baselines, and ensure economic and other human activities respect resource and environmental carrying capacities, and factor in the requisite time and space for nature to recuperate.
A snow leopard in the Sanjiangyuan National Park. Located in the hinterland of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the beautiful and enchanting Sanjiangyuan contains the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow, and Lancang rivers. The area is often referred to as the “water tower of China” and the “water tower of Asia.” XINHUA
Chinese modernization of harmony between humanity and nature is modernization featuring participation in global conservation
Protecting nature and ensuring resource security are global challenges. In pursuing modernization of harmony between humanity and nature, we must expand our global vision, draw inspiration from all the outstanding achievements of human civilization, contribute fully to global ecological governance, and respond to the general concerns of people of all countries. We must also pursue our own development while contributing to global governance and use it to encourage and lead the formation of an equitable, reasonable, cooperative, and mutually beneficial system of global governance, offering Chinese solutions and wisdom to building a global community of shared future for all life on Earth. These efforts can lead to an even better world.
III. Practical steps toward the modernization of harmony between humanity and nature
The next five years will be crucial for getting our efforts to build a modern socialist country off to a good start as well as for promoting green development and harmony between humanity and nature. The Ministry of Natural Resources shall adhere to the objectives of safeguarding resource security, optimizing the layout of territorial space, promoting green and low-carbon development, and protecting rights and interests related to natural resource assets. We shall remain committed to sustainable development and to the principles of prioritizing resource conservation and environmental protection and letting nature restore itself, as well as devote ourselves to the practical steps required to achieve the modernization of harmony between humanity and nature.
Optimizing the layout of China’s territorial space
Promoting the formation of a spatial development pattern that has effective restrictions based on functional zoning and that systematically protects territorial space is a strategic measure with a bearing on the wider picture of ecological conservation. We will enhance the system of functional zoning and supporting policies to enable regions to leverage their comparative advantages. We will implement the “two counterbalances and one freeze” (counterbalancing arable land used for non-agricultural purposes, counterbalancing arable land converted for other agricultural purposes, and freezing the release of equivalent arable land reserved for quota adjustments against illegal appropriation of arable land for non-agricultural purposes), maintain current levels of high-quality arable land in the north of the country and increase levels in the south, and encourage rural households who farm arable land in the mountains to move their operations to non-mountainous areas, so that the spatial layout of agriculture in China better conforms to our natural geographic conditions and the principles of agricultural production. We will strengthen management of ecological conservation redlines by strictly controlling human activities and conduct geological surveys and mining of strategic mineral resources within ecological conservation redline areas in accordance with the law, so as to strike a better balance between ecological protection and our energy and resource security. We will promote coordinated terrestrial and marine development, economically and intensively use neritic and offshore areas, and develop deepwater spaces and resources. We will adapt to changes to our total population as well as population structure and mobility trends and guide the efficient and intensive development of urbanized areas. We will strictly manage urban development boundaries, create urban and rural spaces that are beautiful, livable, green, safe, and resilient, and make rural areas comfortable places for people to live and work. We will also work to protect nature, our historical and cultural heritage, and scenic spots and sights so as to better showcase the unique beauty of China’s landscapes.
Ensuring efficient use of resources
A comprehensive conservation strategy is essential to overcome resource bottlenecks and protect the environment. We must promote overall management as well as methodical allocations, comprehensive conservation, and circular use of resources to continuously raise the efficiency of utilizing resources, including land, minerals, oceans, forests, and grasslands. We need to improve the system for regulating the use of territorial space, strengthen controls on the total area of construction land, and systematically manage the timings and areas of land designated for construction projects. We need to deploy both incentives and constraints and improve systems of standards to encourage a shift toward making the best use of available urban land for development purposes, toward the integrated development of spaces above and below ground, and toward better use of funds and technology in developing land for infrastructure. We will promote environmentally friendly methods of mineral resource exploration to quickly increase reserves and production and promote the exploitation and utilization of associated minerals. We must increase market-based transfers of marine resources and support the establishment of an exit mechanism for inefficient use of marine resources. We must also promote the sustainable management of forests, implement the system for balancing preservation of grasslands and use for grazing, and increase development of cultivated pastures.
Increasing the diversity, stability, and sustainability of ecosystems
Ecosystems are organic communities of living organisms. We must promote the holistic and systematic conservation and improvement of mountains, waters, forests, farmlands, grasslands, and deserts. We need to accelerate the development of the national park-based nature reserve system and complete the integration and optimization of nature reserves across the country. We need to ensure that the first batch of national parks are of a high quality and move quickly to establish the new batch of national parks, including the Yellow River Estuary, Qinling Mountains, Ruoergai (Zoigê) Wetland, Qiangtang (Byang Thang), and Asian Elephant national parks. We will continue to implement the national plan for undertaking major projects to protect and restore important ecosystems and, with the focus on key ecological function zones, ecological conservation redlines, and nature reserves and with guidance from China’s Shan-Shui Initiative, we will coordinate projects involving the ecological restoration of abandoned mining areas, and projects for the protection and improvement of marine ecosystems, along with other important national ecological projects, to create durable shields for our national ecological security. We will carry out major biodiversity protection programs and intensify efforts to prevent the spread of invasive species. We shall respect the principle of territorial differentiation and methodically launch large-scale land greening programs. We will also promote the natural regeneration of grasslands, forests, rivers, lakes, and wetlands.
Steadily achieving peak carbon and carbon neutrality
Ecological conservation in China has reached a critical juncture, in which reducing carbon emissions is a major strategy, with efforts being made to reduce both pollutants and emissions, encourage the green transformation of every aspect of economic and social development, and reach the tipping point from quantitative to qualitative environmental improvements.
Based on the premise of safeguarding our national energy security, we will advance initiatives to reach peak carbon emissions in a well-planned and phased manner. We will take a proactive approach to planning and developing a new type of energy system that prioritizes the development and utilization of local wind and solar energy resources, encourages the construction of large-scale wind and photovoltaic power bases, mainly in desert areas, the Gobi, and other arid areas, promotes large-scale, commercial use of ocean energy, and strengthens exploitation and development of geothermal resources. We will continue to increase the carbon absorption capacity of our ecosystems, focusing on coordination of the restoration and improvement of carbon sinks. We will develop green finance and encourage the inclusion of carbon trading in the national emissions trading scheme. We will also promote technological research, demonstrations, and industrial applications of largescale carbon capture, utilization, and storage.
Promoting global sustainable development
In the face of environmental challenges, humanity shares a common future, in which prosperity or suffering of one affects all. We need to increase the international community’s understanding of Xi Jinping thought on ecological conservation, with the focus on communicating to the world China’s conservation story. Based on our blue partnerships with the EU and other countries and regions, we must expand our network of ecological conservation partners to shape a new system of global ecological governance. We need to fully implement international conventions in the areas of natural resources and ecology, participate in international negotiations and consultations such as on the agreement under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction, and voluntarily undertake international obligations that are commensurate with our national conditions, stage of development, and capabilities. We will promote the joint development of nature reserves and ecological corridors that transcend borders and drainage basins. In the area of ecological conservation, we will train outstanding personnel, participate extensively in the formulation and implementation of international standards and regulations, and strengthen platforms for international cooperation.
Furthering reform of systems and mechanisms of ecological conservation
Reform is an ongoing process. On the new journey, we must focus on significant issues and overcome difficulties in major reform tasks. We need to improve the management system for natural resource assets and implement all aspects of the entrusted agent mechanism for proprietary rights of publicly owned natural resource assets. We will improve the system for market-based allocations of resources and environmental factors and improve the system of paid use for natural resources. We will consolidate the framework of integrated plans for the country’s territorial space and enhance mechanisms for the coordination of national territorial planning, national medium- and long-term development planning, and key dedicated planning. We will also adopt a holistic design to manage spatial requirements and conflicts. We will establish a sound unified system for regulating the use of China’s territorial space that covers all regions and all types of land use. We will further reform of the collective forest rights system and improve the diversified investment mechanism for ecological protection and restoration. We will quickly move ahead with key legislative work, such as laws on territorial space development and protection, territorial space planning, mineral resources, farmland protection, and national parks. We will boost national natural resource inspections and adopt strict measures to uphold redlines in ecological conservation and farmland protection. Based on the integrated territorial space planning underpinned by basic territorial space information platforms, we will develop a digital governance system for building a Beautiful China.
Wang Guanghua is Minister and Secretary of the CPC Leadership Group, Ministry of Natural Resources.
(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 11, 2023)