Pushing China’s Development of an Ecological Civilization to a New Stage
I. Recognizing the importance of stepping up development of an ecological civilization
Building an ecological civilization is vital for sustaining the development of the Chinese nation. The Chinese people have always revered and loved nature, and China’s 5000-year-long civilization embodies a rich ecological cultural component. The Book of Changes states, “We look at the ornamental figures of the sky, and thereby ascertain the changes of the seasons. We look at the ornamental observances of society, and understand how the processes of transformation are accomplished all under heaven,” and, “the ruler divides and completes the course of heaven and earth; he furthers and regulates the gifts of heaven and earth, and so aids the people.” The Dao De Jing states, “Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Dao. The law of the Dao is its being what it is.” The Mencius states, “If the seasons of husbandry be not interfered with, the grain will be more than can be eaten. If close nets are not allowed to enter the pools and ponds, the fish and turtles will be more than can be consumed. If the axes and bills enter the hill-forests only at the proper times, the wood will be more than can be used.” The Xunzi states, “Axes must not enter the forest when the plants and trees are flourishing, lest their lives be cut short.” The Manual of Important Arts for the People, a sixth-century agricultural encyclopedia, states, “Act according to the seasons and the nature of the land, and you will enjoy great success through little effort.” These concepts all stress the importance of uniting heaven, earth, and man, following the rules of nature, and using what nature has to offer with patience and restraint, and show that our ancestors well understood the need to properly handle the relationship between man and nature.
Environmental concepts were elevated to the level of state institutions in China at a very early time in history. A special organization overseeing the mountains, forests, rivers, and marshes was established, and it instituted relevant policies and decrees through the warden system. In the Rites of Zhou, it is recorded that wardens were responsible for protecting the natural environment by restricting access to certain areas and enforcing relevant prohibitions. During the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD 220) dynasties, there were separate officers responsible for forests, rivers, shorelines, gardens, and farmlands, and the warden system in fact carried on all the way to the Qing Dynasty. Many of China’s dynasties had laws for the protection of nature, and violators of these laws faced severe punishment. For example, the order issued by King Wen of Zhou (1152-1056 BC) on the attack of Chong said, “It is forbidden to destroy houses, close wells, cut trees, or disturb animals. Those who do not comply with this order shall be put to death.”
A civilization may thrive if its natural surroundings thrive, and will suffer if its natural surroundings suffer. The natural environment is the basis of human survival and development, and changes to it directly impact the rise and fall of civilizations. The four great ancient civilizations of Egypt, Babylon, India, and China all began in regions with thick forests, abundant water, and fertile soil. The surging Yangtze and Yellow rivers formed the cradle of the Chinese nation, and nurtured our country’s development into a magnificent civilization. Meanwhile, environmental degradation, particularly severe desertification, led to the decline of ancient Egypt and Babylon. Some areas of China also went through painful lessons in ancient times. For example, the desert sands swallowed up the once glorious and lush kingdom of Loulan. The Hexi Corridor and the Loess Plateau also once boasted adequate vegetation and water, but excessive deforestation to open up land for cultivation caused severe environmental damage, which in turn aggravated economic decline. The gradual shift of China’s economic centers to the east and south of the country since the middle of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was largely a result of environmental changes in western China.
On May 4, 2018, we held a ceremony marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. During the ceremony, I made a point of saying that in studying Marx, we must study and practice Marxist thought on the relationship between man and nature. Marx and Engels believed that “man lives on nature,” and that humans produce, live, and develop through their interactions with nature. If humans treat nature kindly, then nature will repay that kindness. However, “If man, by dint of his knowledge and inventive genius, has subdued the forces of nature, the latter avenge themselves upon him.” In Dialectics of Nature, Engels wrote, “The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centers and reservoirs of moisture. When, on the southern slopes of the mountains, the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, with the effect that these would be able to pour still more furious flood torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons.”
With history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a state. The reason why I have repeatedly emphasized the importance of taking environmental issues seriously and handling them properly is that China’s environmental capacity is limited, our ecosystems are vulnerable, and we have still not achieved a fundamental reversal of environmental conditions that cause heavy pollution, significant damage, and high risk. Meanwhile, our unique geographical surroundings have exacerbated interregional imbalances. The land to the southeast of the Heihe-Tengchong Line accounts for 43% of China’s total area, but is home to about 94% of its population. Dominated by plains, rivulets, low mountains, hills, and karst landforms, this part of China is under immense environmental pressure. The land to the northwest of the line accounts for 57% of China’s total area, but is home to only about 6% of our population. Dominated by grasslands, the Gobi Desert, oases, and snowy plateaus, the ecosystems in this part of the country are extremely fragile. This is a very important aspect to consider when we talk about China’s national conditions.
Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC held in 2012, we have made building an ecological civilization a major component of coordinated implementation of the five-sphere integrated plan and the four-pronged comprehensive strategy. We have carried out a long list of creative, forward-thinking, and fundamentally important work and introduced a whole series of new concepts, ideas, and strategies, and thus the notion of an ecological civilization has increasingly taken root in the hearts of the people. As our efforts to control pollution have intensified, we have seen unprecedented progress in terms of the frequency with which new systems for environmental governance have emerged, the rigor with which oversight and enforcement has been carried out, and the rate at which the environment has improved. Therefore, our efforts to promote environmental protection have gone through a historic turnaround with wide-ranging implications.
I have always seen our environmental work as being extremely important. When working in places such as Zhengding, Xiamen, Ningde, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, I always made environmental work one of my prime areas of focus. Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, I have delivered several comments and instructions on incidents that caused serious damage to the environment as well as on promoting well-coordinated environmental conservation and avoiding excessive development in the Yangtze River Economic Belt. I have requested that competent authorities be rigorous in their investigation and handling of environmental issues and not let up until these issues have been completely resolved. By doing so, we will ensure that pristine environments are preserved for the enjoyment of future generations and that the security and stability of all types of natural ecosystems are maintained.
Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC, we have comprehensively boosted reform and accelerated the development of top-level design and a system of institutions for an ecological civilization. In this process, we have introduced the Guidelines on Accelerating Ecological Civilization and the Integrated Reform Plan for Promoting Ecological Civilization, and formulated more than 40 reform plans regarding ecological development. We have thus made comprehensive and systematic arrangements for building an ecological civilization covering areas such as overall objectives, basic concepts, main principles, key tasks, and institutional safeguards. We have launched and implemented systems with functions including the assessment of ecological development targets, the audit of natural resource assets under an official’s purview when officials leave their posts, and the enforcement of accountability for environmental damage. Meanwhile, the system of main functional zones has gradually improved. Faster progress has been made with environmental governance systems including those for vertical management of monitoring, supervision, and enforcement activities conducted by environmental protection agencies at the sub-provincial level, and for controlling the quality of environmental monitoring data. We have also made progress with regard to emission permits, the river and lake chief systems, and the prohibition on importing foreign refuse into China. Meanwhile, the formulation and implementation of economic policies on environmental issues such as green finance reform, the drafting of balance sheets for natural resource assets, the levy of environmental protection taxes, and compensation for environmental protection has progressed smoothly. Our efforts to control air pollution in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and protect the environment in the Yangtze River Economic Belt have gradually shown results. We have also drafted and revised laws including the Environmental Protection Law and the Environmental Protection Tax Law, as well as laws on nuclear safety and the prevention and control of air and water pollution. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the Supreme People’s Court, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate have defined the criteria for determining criminal liability with regard to environmental pollution and ecological destruction and made punishments more severe, thus forming a powerful deterrent against such crimes.
The central environmental protection inspection system is a particular example of an institution that is solid and put to good use. It is prepared to take real action and do what is necessary, and once it looks into a particular issue it will not let go until the issue is resolved. It has therefore become a practical and effective tool for pushing local CPC committees and governments as well as their relevant departments to fulfill their environmental protection obligations.
We have put great energy into promoting green development, and achieved marked results. We have optimized the layout of China’s territorial space, and set red lines for environmental protection in 15 provincial-level units including Ningxia and those in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and the Yangtze River Economic Belt. Deeper progress has been made with supply-side structural reform, the industrial structure has constantly improved, a large number of highly polluting enterprises have withdrawn from operation in an orderly manner, and scattered, non-compliant, and polluting industries in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and its surrounding areas have been put under unprecedented scrutiny. We have seen positive changes take place in energy consumption patterns, and China has become the world’s largest user of new and renewable sources of energy. We have made effective progress with our efforts to conserve resources across the board, and the intensity of resource consumption has fallen markedly.
We have moved forward with implementation of three major action plans for preventing and controlling air, water, and soil pollution. China was the first major developing country in the world to launch a large-scale PM2.5 control program, and has also built the world’s largest wastewater treatment capacity. Average concentration of inhalable particulate matter (PM10) in 338 cities at or above the prefectural level throughout China fell by 22.7% between 2013 and 2017, average PM2.5 concentration in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region dropped by 39.6%, and that in Beijing decreased from 89.5 micrograms per cubic meter to 58 micrograms per cubic meter. The proportion of surface water body sections under the national monitoring program that met Grade I-III water quality standards rose to 67.9%, while the proportion of those failing to meet Grade V standard fell to 8.3%. Meanwhile, forest coverage rose from about 16.6% at the beginning of the century to about 22% today.
China has shown great initiative through its release of China’s National Plan on Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, its implementation of China’s National Plan on Climate Change (2014-2020), and its submission of documents ratifying the Paris Agreement to the UN. China accounts for more than half of the elimination of ozone-depleting substances by developing countries, making it the world’s largest contributor to protection of the ozone layer. In 2017, the Belt and Road International Green Development Coalition was established with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme and other international organizations.
Through untiring effort, China has seen consistent improvement in environmental quality. However, we must be soberly aware that in our efforts to build an ecological civilization, we face grave challenges, immense pressure, and prominent contradictions. The situation remains extremely serious, since in order to make progress there are still many difficult obstacles that we must overcome, tough problems that we must face, and long-standing issues that we must resolve.
Although environmental quality in China is continuing to take a turn for the better and showing trends of steady improvement, the results are still tenuous. The situation is much like rowing a boat against the current; if we let up even slightly then we risk undoing all of the progress we have made. Our efforts to build an ecological civilization are now in a crucial phase in which we must carry forward despite heavy strain and immense pressure, a decisive stage in which we will supply more high-quality ecological goods to meet the growing demands of the people for a pristine environment, and also a period of opportunity in which we have the conditions and abilities necessary to resolve prominent environmental issues. China’s economy has already begun shifting from a stage of rapid growth to one of high-quality growth, and there are thus a number of both conventional and unconventional hurdles that must be overcome. This is a process of rebirth, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. If we do not act now, these issues will bring about even graver consequences as they become more difficult and costly to resolve, so we must grit our teeth and conquer the challenges that lie ahead.
Achieving moderate prosperity throughout society by 2020 is our Party’s solemn commitment to the people. We cannot say that moderate prosperity has been achieved while environmental quality remains poor, otherwise this statement would not win the people’s approval or stand up to the test of time. No matter the difficulty, we must not flinch or hesitate. In the battle to prevent and control pollution, we must have the determination to make painful changes, the courage to stand and fight, and the will to commit every last ounce of our effort. Party committees and governments at all levels must take the initiative to incorporate construction of an ecological civilization into plans for economic and social development. We must ensure that Party committees provide leadership, governments give direction, enterprises bear responsibility, and members of the public can participate, and firmly reject the old path of polluting first and fixing it later or any growth model that would damage or destroy the environment. To resolve environmental issues, we must fully exert the political strength of CPC leadership and China’s socialist system which can bring together the resources necessary to take on great tasks, take full advantage of the solid material foundations built up over 40 years of reform and opening up, and step up our efforts to build an ecological civilization.