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Promoting Harmony Between Humanity and Nature in Modernization

By Ministry of Natural Resources Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2024-03-11

President Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the National Conference on Ecological and Environmental Protection on July 17, 2023. As a guiding Marxist document, this speech represents a further interpretation and development of Xi Jinping thought on ecological conservation. It reflects the new heights the Communist Party of China (CPC) has attained in its understanding of the laws governing ecological conservation.

I. Four major transformations in China’s ecological conservation in the new era

Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping at its core has highlighted the fundamental importance of ecological conservation for the sustainable development of the Chinese nation. Pioneering efforts in this regard have led to historic, transformative, and comprehensive theoretical and practical changes, as well as considerable strides in the Beautiful China Initiative. Specifically, we have achieved four major transformations: we have progressed from addressing priority issues to implementing systematic governance; from passively reacting to seizing the initiative in ecological matters; from participating to taking a lead in global environmental governance; and from pursuing conservation based on practical explorations to applying a theoretically driven approach.

Xi Jinping thought on ecological conservation has taken shape and been embraced by the people

Since 2012, President Xi has made the sustainable development of the Chinese nation a priority. Reviewing China’s efforts in ecological conservation in the new era, he has introduced a series of creative new ideas, new thinking, and new strategies to address major issues of theoretical and practical importance, such as the kind of ecological progress to be pursued and the ways to achieve it. This has culminated in the formation of Xi Jinping thought on ecological conservation. Meanwhile, public awareness and recognition have also grown regarding the need for harmony between humanity and nature, the notion that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets, and the importance of resource conservation, environmental protection, and green development.


Autumn scenery in Lucun Village, Yixian County, Anhui Province, November 1, 2023. Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, major strides have been made in building a Beautiful China (drone photo). XINHUA / PHOTO BY SHI YALEI

An institutional framework for ecological conservation has been largely established

A number of important systems have been put in place. These include a property rights system for natural resources, a system for the development and protection of territorial space, an integrated planning system for territorial space, a system for regulating total resource consumption and promoting comprehensive resource conservation, systems for the paid use of natural resources and the provision of environmental compensation, an environmental governance system, a market system for environmental governance and ecological conservation, and a performance evaluation and accountability system pertaining to ecological progress. We have also improved the management systems for natural resources and the ecological environment and formulated or revised over 30 laws on ecological conservation. Thanks to these efforts, an institutional framework for ecological conservation has come into being.

Acceleration in green and low-carbon development

China has become the global leader in installed capacities of hydropower, wind power, and solar power. The decade from 2012 to 2022 saw a significant rise in the share of clean energy in China’s total energy mix, climbing from 14.5% to 25.9%. This was accompanied by a reduction in the share of coal in primary energy consumption from 68.5% to 56.2%, alongside a 40.1% decrease in carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP. Thanks to consistent improvements in resource use efficiency since 2012, China has recorded decreases in energy consumption, water consumption, and consumption of land allocated for construction per unit of GDP, with reductions of 26.4%, 46.5%, and 38.6%, respectively. The rising efficiency has also driven an increase of close to 60% in the ratio of GDP to major resource consumption.


The Nenjiang Bay National Wetland Park, Da’an City, Jilin Province, June 18, 2022. In recent years, thanks to a holistic and multidimensional governance approach, the water quality and ecological environment of the Songhua and Liaohe rivers have steadily improved, giving shape to a rich and thriving ecosystem (drone photo). XINHUA / PHOTO BY PAN SHENGYU

Progress in ecological protection and restoration

China has led the way in introducing a system for ecological conservation redlines, which cover over 30% of the country’s total land area. In implementing this system, we have integrated and refined more than 9,000 nature reserves and established China’s first five national parks. Since 2012, over 50 projects have been carried out under China’s Shan-Shui Initiative (literally Mountain and Water Initiative for promoting the integrated conservation and restoration of mountain, water, forest, farmland, grassland, and desert ecosystems) in areas of ecological importance, such as the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, Yellow River Basin, and Yangtze River Basin. This has resulted in the restoration and improvement of 53,700 km2 of land. Thanks to projects for the protection and improvement of marine ecosystems, we have restored about 2,000 km of coastlines and over 40,000 hectares of coastal wetlands. Forest coverage has also risen to 24.02% from 21.63%, the largest increase in forest resources of any country in the world.

China’s contributions to global ecological governance

To cope with climate change, China has not only worked for the conclusion, signing, entry into force, and implementation of the Paris Agreement, but also made a commitment to reaching peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. In addition to hosting conferences of the parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Convention on Wetlands, it has also actively participated in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), among other action plans.

The UN’s most prestigious environmental recognition, the Champions of the Earth Award, was granted to the Saihanba afforestation community in Hebei Province and to Zhejiang’s Green Rural Revival Program and its Blue Circle environmental initiative for marine plastic pollution treatment. In addition, China’s Shan-Shui Initiative was selected as one of the UN’s first 10 World Restoration Flagships.

II. The five relationships in advancing ecological conservation

To continue our endeavors in ecological conservation on the new journey ahead, it is crucial to properly handle five major relationships: those between high-quality development and high-standard environmental protection; between key tasks and coordinated governance; between letting nature restore itself and pursuing human restoration; between external constraints and intrinsic motivation; and between our commitment to reaching peak carbon and carbon neutrality and independent actions.

High-quality development and high-standard environmental protection

As a dialectical unity, high-quality development and high-standard environmental protection are complementary and mutually reinforcing rather than diametrically opposed. High-quality development serves as the objective of high-standard environmental protection while the latter provides important support for the former. In other words, economic growth should not come at the expense of resource depletion and environmental degradation, which would be like draining a pond in order to catch fish. Similarly, simply forsaking growth in the name of environmental protection would be as irrational as climbing up a tree to catch fish. Rather, it is necessary to pursue protection while seeking growth and to promote growth while ensuring protection. On the one hand, we must maintain harmony between humanity and nature when planning our development, ensuring that economic and other human activities remain within resource and environmental carrying capacities in line with the notion that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets. On the other hand, high-standard environmental protection will allow us to constantly generate new development drivers and strengths and build a green, low-carbon, and circular economy. This will help bolster the potential and sustainability of our development on an ongoing basis.

Key tasks and coordinated governance

In promoting ecological conservation, it is critical that we address both primary and secondary tasks while placing the focus on the former. This requires us to not only take stock of the bigger picture with regard to the various ecological issues at hand, but also prioritize the resolution of principal issues and the main aspects of these issues, which, in turn, will facilitate the resolution of other issues. By tackling prominent environmental problems with robust measures, we can secure key breakthroughs to drive overall progress.

Given the complexity of environmental elements, the integrated nature of ecosystems, the contiguity of natural geographical units, and the need for sustainable socioeconomic development, we must take a holistic and systematic approach to conserving and improving mountain, water, forest, farmland, grassland, and desert ecosystems and refrain from treating superficial symptoms with stopgap measures. To this end, steps should be taken to coordinate industrial restructuring, pollution control, ecological conservation, and climate response, and concerted efforts should be made to cut carbon emissions, reduce pollution, expand green development, and pursue economic growth.

Letting nature restore itself and pursuing human restoration efforts

As organic communities of living organisms, natural ecosystems have their own objective laws of development and evolution. Guided by these laws, we have promoted the natural regeneration of grasslands, forests, rivers, lakes, and wetlands, enforced the 10-year fishing ban on the Yangtze River, and adopted the system of fallowing and crop rotation. These successful governance practices have proven that the capacities of natural ecosystems to regulate, purify, and restore themselves must be preserved to the greatest extent possible, in accordance with the principles of prioritizing resource conservation and environmental protection and letting nature restore itself. As for those areas unable to recover naturally from severe ecological damage, we must take active actions for science-based and human-driven restoration, in a bid to create the conditions for faster and more efficient natural rehabilitation. The Saihanba afforestation initiative and the Kubuqi Desert greening project are excellent examples in this regard.

In a nutshell, a comprehensive framework for ecological conservation should be set up to remediate ecosystems from the mountaintop to the ocean, with a commitment to building a community of life for humanity and nature. In this process, using a combination of natural and artificial methods, we should tailor measures to local conditions and current situations to find optimal solutions to protect and restore ecosystems.

External constraints and intrinsic motivation

There is no replacement for the natural environment, but we may not realize how truly precious it is until it is damaged beyond repair. To protect it, people’s intrinsic motivation and tight external constraints are both indispensable. On the one hand, we should have recourse to the strictest possible systems and rule of law for environmental protection, giving full play to their guiding, regulating, incentivizing, and restricting roles. Through rigorous inspection, law enforcement, and accountability, consistent external pressure can be applied to benefit people who protect the environment and hold those who damage it to account. On the other hand, energy should be devoted to promoting the concept of ecological civilization, fostering ecological culture, and drawing on the profound ecological values rooted in China’s traditional culture. By doing so, we can raise public awareness of the need to conserve resources, protect the environment, and preserve ecosystems, and encourage the extensive engagement of the whole society in concerted environmental protection efforts.


A conservation ranger feeds a Tibetan antelope calf in the Hoh Xil area of Sanjiangyuan National Park, July 28, 2023. Hoh Xil is an important habitat for the Tibetan antelope, a Class I protected species. Under the persistent guardianship of three generations of rangers at the conservation station in Hoh Xil, the local Tibetan antelope population has increased from fewer than 20,000 in the early 1980s to over 70,000 today. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER ZHANG HONGXIANG

Our commitment to and independent actions for peak carbon and carbon neutrality

The carefully formulated strategy to reach peak carbon and carbon neutrality represents a solemn pledge to the international community made by the CPC Central Committee. It is also integral to China’s high-quality development. Our commitment to these goals is unwavering, but the path, methods, pace, and intensity by which they are attained will be decided by us and not influenced by others.

In terms of the path and methods, we need to press ahead with initiatives under the “1+N” policy framework for reaching peak carbon and carbon neutrality based on China’s energy and resource endowment. This will enable us to accelerate the formation of industrial structures, modes of production, ways of life, and spatial layouts that are conducive to resource conservation and environmental protection. With regard to the pace and intensity, we ought to work toward the dual carbon goals in a well-planned and phased manner in line with the principle of building the new before discarding the old. Resolute moves must be taken to prevent a rush to launch energy-intensive and high-emission projects ahead of the deadline for peak carbon, as well as campaign-style carbon reduction drives featuring unrealistic goals and one-size-fits-all approaches.

III. Promoting modernization featuring harmony between humanity and nature through the Beautiful China Initiative

Optimizing the development layout of China’s territorial space

To fully implement the Outline for National Territorial Space Planning (2021–2035), we will safeguard boundaries and baselines for developing and protecting territorial space and refine the functional zoning strategy by coordinating the layout of spaces designated for agricultural production, ecological conservation, and urban development.

First, rigorous measures will be taken to keep China’s total area of farmland above the redline of 120 million hectares and ensure no further reduction in the arable land available for stable long-term use. Second, in safeguarding ecological conservation redlines, we will ensure stricter law enforcement and supervision, as well as greater protection and restoration efforts, to see that ecological spaces do not change in character or lose their ecological functions. Third, to optimize the integrated plans for territorial space and the layout of such space, urban development boundaries will be subject to tight control. We will provide guidance for initiatives on urban renewal and rural development, pursue intensive and green growth in urban and rural areas, and build beautiful cities in the new era. Fourth, further efforts will be channeled toward managing maritime space and coastal zones and integrating the marine economy into the major regional strategies.

Ensuring efficient use of resources

As we pursue a comprehensive conservation strategy, more rigorous regulation and conservation will be applied throughout the whole process of utilizing various resources, including land, minerals, seas, forests, and grasslands. In implementing the strictest possible system for the economical and intensive use of land, we will exercise tighter control over the total area of land designated for construction, refine the system for market-based allocation of land as a factor of production, set more stringent regulation standards for construction land, and do more to redevelop inefficiently used land in urban areas.

We will move forward with a new round of strategic mineral exploration initiatives, with more intensive efforts being made to explore and develop strategic mineral resources domestically, discover more untapped reserves, and boost production. In addition, we will also ensure comprehensive utilization, recycling, and eco-friendly development of mineral resources, so as to increase the production capacity for such important materials. An exit mechanism for inefficient uses of marine resources will be instituted, and new projects to reclaim land from the sea will be placed under tough regulation. The sustainable management of forest resources will be promoted, and a system for balancing the preservation of grasslands with their use for grazing will be implemented.

Increasing the diversity, stability, and sustainability of ecosystems

Based on the integration and optimization of nature reserves across the country, we will move faster to build a nature reserve system with national parks as the mainstay, nature reserves as the foundation, and various types of nature parks as a supplement. This will enable us to put representative natural ecosystems and habitats of rare species under protection.

We will take coordinated steps to push forward major national ecological projects, including the Shan-Shui Initiative and projects for the ecological restoration of abandoned mining areas and the protection and improvement of marine ecosystems, with priority given to key ecological function zones, ecological conservation redline areas, and nature reserves. Well-conceived greening programs will be carried out on a large scale; and in moving forward with the Three-North Shelterbelt Program, we will focus on implementing a series of projects to prevent and control desertification in key areas. In particular, we will make an all-out push in three major landmark initiatives to combat desertification in areas near the meandering bends of the Yellow River, the sandy lands of Horqin and Hunshandake, and the Hexi CorridorTaklamakan Desert region.

We will refine the system of fallowing and crop rotation and strictly enforce the 10-year fishing ban on the Yangtze River. We will optimize the biodiversity protection network by carrying out major biodiversity protection projects and gradually establishing a national botanical gardens system, with a view to developing a beautiful natural environment. Based on a bay-specific approach, we will protect and restore marine ecosystems in offshore areas and steadily enhance the quality and stability of important marine ecosystems such as mangrove forests.

To see these efforts through, we need to build a sounder regulatory framework for the protection and restoration of ecosystems based on intensified ecological monitoring and assessment and stricter inspection and law enforcement for nature reserves and ecological conservation redlines.

Steadily working toward peak carbon and carbon neutrality

The goals of peak carbon and carbon neutrality cannot be rushed, nor can they be delayed. Rather, it is essential to take proactive yet prudent steps toward these goals in a phased and gradual manner.

By securing coal supplies from mines and ensuring cleaner and more efficient coal use, we will see that coal plays a fundamental role in ensuring our energy security and serves as a supportive and regulating power source in the development of new energy resources. To bolster the development and utilization of local wind and solar energy resources, we will support the establishment of large-scale wind and photovoltaic power bases in deserts, including the Gobi, and other unutilized lands, and guide the healthy and orderly development of the offshore photovoltaic industry. We will enhance the systems for energy production, supply, storage, and marketing and increase our capacity to ensure oil and gas security. To build up the carbon sink capacity of ecosystems, we will work to stabilize the carbon sequestration capacity of forests, grasslands, wetlands, oceans, soil, permafrost, and karst areas, further tapping into their role in boosting carbon absorption. Improvements will also be made to the policy framework for green and low-carbon development as well as to compensation mechanisms for ecological conservation that reflect the value of carbon sinks.

Safeguarding redlines for ecological security

It is imperative to take a holistic approach to national security. We must respond proactively and effectively to various risks and challenges, so that the natural environment and conditions we depend on for survival and development are not threatened or damaged. For this purpose, the following actions will be taken.

First, leveraging systems for the investigation and monitoring of natural resources, alongside data from the third national land resource survey, we will carry out comprehensive surveillance, assessment, and early warning for ecological risks in key regions, river basins, and sea areas. Second, we will enhance monitoring and early warning, as well as emergency response capabilities, for wildlife-borne infectious diseases. Third, we will raise our capacity for containing invasive alien species by optimizing the monitoring and early warning network. Fourth, to better prevent and control natural disasters, we will improve the comprehensive system for preventing and controlling geological disasters, reinforce our risk assessment and early warning capabilities for marine disasters, and adopt a more integrated approach to fire prevention and control in forests and grasslands. Fifth, we will double down on efforts to build coastal cities’ resilience to climate change and construct eco-friendly seawalls.

Putting in place stronger foundations and institutional guarantees

We will move quickly ahead with key legislation, such as laws on territorial space planning, mineral resources, farmland protection, and national parks, as well as regulations on nature reserves and the implementation of the Forestry Law. We will improve the management system for natural resource assets by drawing on experience from the trials of the entrusted agent mechanism for proprietary rights of publicly owned natural resource assets. A sound unified system will be put in place for regulating the use of China’s territorial space across all regions and for all types of land use. We will improve the system of paid use for natural resources, gradually extending its scope of application.

We will further reform the collective forest rights system, exploring more effective ways and operation mechanisms to achieve the separation of ownership rights, contract rights, and use rights for collectively owned forests. Steps will also be taken to facilitate compensation for efforts to conserve major rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, key ecological function zones, ecological conservation redline areas, and important ecosystems, and to optimize the investment mechanism for ecological protection and restoration. Moreover, we will strive for breakthroughs in major original and pioneering scientific and technological projects, such as deep earth probes, deep-sea and polar exploration, and space-borne earth observation. Under the guidance of integrated territorial space planning underpinned by basic territorial space information platforms, we will develop a digital governance system for building a Beautiful China.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 22, 2023)