China's response to a national land-system sustainability emergency

In my 20 year career in environmental science and policy research I have seen many projects, policies, management initiatives, and programs designed to arrest environmental degradation and restore sustainable environments and local economies. Despite the best of intentions, most of these of have been (what I now think of as…) small, and most have not achieved measurable benefits for sustainability on a large-scale, despite what is often perceived to be substantial investment. I had not seen anything even remotely in the same ballpark as what China has done over that same time period for its rural sustainability.
China's response to a national land-system sustainability emergency

Today we published in Nature a significant review entitled "China's response to a national land-system sustainability emergency". The paper was a result of a large international collaboration between Australian and Chinese scientists dedicated to capturing and characterizing China's massive investment in rural sustainability and the impacts on people and the environment.

The opportunity

Having spent much of my career working on Australian environments, a formative moment in the development of this paper was an out-of-the-blue invitation from Professor Jianguo (Jingle) Wu (Beijing Normal University, Arizona State University) to give a keynote presentation at the 3rd International Forum on Landscape Sustainability Science in Beijing in 2015 spanned. In concluding my presentation on futures for land-use and ecosystem services in Australia, I challenged the audience to come up with ideas about how we could collaborate in a national-scale assessment for China. 

International speakers, hosts, and organisers of the 3rd International Forum on Landscape Sustainability Science in Beijing.

Through many long conversations and toasts of 'Mongolian water' (TIP: it is not actually water) during the highly convivial conference banquets, I developed strong and trusting relationships with several Chinese scientists. Then in 2016, an opportunity arose to further these relationships through the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's (DFAT) Climate Change Engagement Program which aimed to advance collaboration between Australia and China on climate change issues. My CSIRO colleagues (at the time)—Professor Jeff Connor, Associate Professor Neville Crossman, Dr Lei Gao—and I were successful in obtaining a small grant to work in collaboration with my new Chinese colleagues. 

I had an inkling that China had been investing heavily into ecological restoration and land degradation from reading Professor Jianguo (Jack) Liu and colleagues' paper from 2008 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA but I had not seen a lot published in the interim. My original idea for the DFAT project was that we could investigate the carbon sequestration and climate change benefits from large-scale reforestation that was occurring under China's well-known Grain for Green program. 

Onto something big

Around the same time, Dr Yanqiong Ye From South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou visited us in CSIRO for 12 months supported by the China Scholarship Council (CSC). Under the leadership of Dr Lei Gao, Yanqiong set about acquiring and digitising data from the Chinese Statistical Yearbooks on China's investment in sustainability in rural land systems and the area over which sustainability interventions were implemented. 

It quickly became apparent that the story was far bigger than carbon. Chinese investment in sustainability was not limited to the high profile programs like Grain for Green and the Natural Forest Conservation Program, but covered a range of sustainability objectives including forests and ecosystems, agriculture and forestry, poverty and food security, erosion and water quality, biodiversity, desertification and dust storms, and livestock and grasslands. It was also clear at this point that we were onto something big as China's investment was orders of magnitude larger than any other sustainability programs that we knew of, and seemed remarkably sophisticated as the portfolio of programs elegantly addressed the complex trade-offs and challenges commonly presented by land systems. 

Much of this story was little known to Western scientists and not widely recognized by the Chinese either. We suspected that the lessons learned from China’s experience could be important for other countries as they strive towards the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN’s Agenda 2030. 

Dr Xiufeng Sun, another CSC-supported visitor, from Southwest University in Chongqing, helped with the data assembly and visualisation task after Yanqiong left. Together, Lei, Yanqiong, and Xiufeng synthesised the entire 16 major programs we reviewed, analysed investment against the SDGs, prepared the graphics, and assembled the enormous Supporting Information tables associated with the Nature paper.


In late 2016, with the help of Dr Zhifeng Liu of Beijing Normal University, and supported by the DFAT grant, we organised a workshop in Beijing and invited Chinese colleagues with expertise spanning the vast Chinese geography and a broad range of sustainability contexts. We presented the results of our Chinese statistical data mining exercise and an initial scoping of the review of sustainability indicators. Our Chinese colleagues provided invaluable history, context, and interpretation of the programs and their impacts, including identifying a few new programs and sustainability issues that we had overlooked. 

A great strength of this research team was the ability to access both the Chinese literature and the English speaking literature and data. Throughout this process of data synthesis and research collaboration between Australian and Chinese scientists, the contribution of Dr Lei Gao, a permanent Australian resident and indefinite CSIRO employee, was crucial. Apart from shouldering significant amounts of review work and data analysis himself, Lei also served as a leader and mentor for the Chinese visitors, and as a knowledge broker, conduit, and connector—breaking down the geographic, cultural and language divides between Australian and Chinese scientists that so often pose a barrier to effective collaboration. 

Co-authors of the Nature paper at a meeting in Beijing in November 2016. From Left to right is: Dr Zhifeng Liu, Prof Hua Zheng, Assoc Prof Qingxu Huang, Dr Lei Gao, Dr Ang Li, Prof Hai Ren, Prof Brett Bryan, Prof Jeff Connor, Assoc Prof Neville Crossman, Prof Chunyang He, Prof Guodong Han, Prof Jianming Niu, and Dr Zhiguo Li. Absent are Prof Jianguo Wu, Prof Xiangzheng Deng, Dr Mark Stafford Smith, Assoc Prof Yanqiong Ye, Prof Deyong Yu, Prof Xiangyang Hou, and Dr Xiufeng Sun.

Challenges along the way

A great challenge encountered during our work on China was in the importance of understanding the underpinning values and perspectives of scientists and authors. Work on China can be polarizing and is inextricably linked with left or right-leaning political worldviews, often falling into one of two extreme categories—colloquially termed “Panda Huggers” and “China Bashers”. These attitudes that we see so much of in the Chinese media and the Western media, respectively, also pervade much of the modern scientific literature. Yet the influence of worldview on science is subtle and often goes unnoticed by its readers. Panda Hugger work tends to be characterized by a largely uncritical and at times superficial scientific treatment of the issues, whereas China Basher work tends to be hypercritical of the Chinese context. 

I got caught out by this early on as my writing had become influenced by work falling largely into one of these camps in particular. I am grateful to have been set straight by my senior Chinese colleagues who in no uncertain terms explained to me this phenomena and the pitfalls to look out for. Since that enlightening moment I have been convinced that the truth lay somewhere between these two extremes and have been careful to redouble my critical evaluation of everything I read. The middle ground that our Nature paper now treads has surprised even its own authors who have been refreshed by the objective, warts-and-all assessment of China’s programs.

A landmark paper

The paper represents a landmark in sustainability science as it recognizes the unprecedented efforts China has made in mitigating and reversing a dire situation for people and nature in its rural areas. Probably the most astounding thing is that the benefits for rural sustainability are detectable on a national scale. While the programs have been imperfect and negative outcomes have occurred, China’s experience provides valuable lessons for all nations as the they pursue the Sustainable Development Goals. Importantly, the research directions spelled-out in the paper should generate a new generation of case studies, systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and syntheses of the impacts of China’s programs. These are essential for informing future sustainability investment as the Chinese government heads towards President Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream of an 'ecological civilization' and a 'beautiful China'. See a video summary of the paper here:

A celebration

A subset of the author group met again in Beijing in June of 2018 at the 6th International Forum on Landscape Sustainability Science where I presented the results of the forthcoming paper in Nature—the response to, and outcome of, my challenge from the same forum back in 2015. With Chinese hospitality at its best, conviviality reached a peak during this meeting as we celebrated the success of this intercontinental collaboration between Australian and Chinese scientists. Other sectors of society could do worse than to learn from our experience which is that when people from diverse backgrounds work together openly and with mutual trust, then great things can be achieved.

Participants from the 6th Landscape Sustainability Science Forum in Beijing, 2018.

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Go to the profile of Xinqi Zheng
over 4 years ago

Intensive Land Use: Three Red Lines in China

Since the 21st century began, the continued urbanization process in China brought many unprecedented challenges in environmental protection, and resource utilization and sustainable development. Unfortunately, it also has created a new product: pollution haze. Haze has affected entire country, especially eastern China. As urbanization often transforms farmland and villages into cities, pollution haze threatens food security and rural civilizations. Additionally, another phenomenon has emerged: urban agglomerations. This means that populated areas become ghost towns with no one or few people inhabiting the areas. In order to prevent the situation from worsening, the Chinese government proposes three red lines (farmland, urban development and ecology) to control the current situation and coordinate all land areas in the country. The objective of the three red lines is to realize sustainable development under the “new normal” environment. 
To meet different departments’ administration authority, various new red lines were developed; e.g., water resources development, utilization efficiency   control and water function area limit. Now, the main issue of the environment is not in the number of red lines built, but rather in lax enforcement and weak penalties. This issue makes Under the dome become real. Under traditional Chinese culture, officers were only concerned about the rate of progress of urbanization and the growth rate of the GDP. In order to hit the target, officials misrepresented the number of new cities and GDPs of some established cities.
The three red lines’ original intentions were to strengthen legal system, to develop economy around red lines and to regulate human behaviors. But different policy cycles, assessment methods, management methods and profit relationships between two departments have been in existence for a long time. Thus, significant conflict appeared throughout the entire country between the economic development goals and ecosystem. In addition, the three red lines will cause problems with monitoring, supervising, and optimizing the execution of plans in the future.
In China, one of the farmland red line, food security that should be guaranteed is a strictly enforced farmland protection system. The government developed a Chinese-style farmland protection system for farmland, prime farmland and permanent prime farmland. However, the total amount of actual area of farmland is still uncertain, it will become a main impact factor of decision-making in farmland sustainable development.  

With the purpose of assess land use in urbanization process, intensive land use assessment became national strategy since 1999. Currently Chinese government is doing a large-scale intensive land use monitoring and evaluation project, which contains university areas and rural construction land assessments. Until now government has already finished the fourth round in 1600 types of development zones. It is estimated that the entire project will be done in 2018. The economical and intensive construction land use already has been become one of the most strict land management institutions. It has important influence in populous country. Now, the government is exploring a new intensive land use method about how to delimitate urban development boundary. To protect farmland and ecological land, we should delimitate urban development boundary.

In ecology red line, how to resolve conflict between protection and development is the major issue. It is a big challenge for local government because of it may affects local industrial structure and layout in short-term, and then affects local economic development. Although the ecology red line has many problems, local government still need promote ecology red line.
The “new normal” theory, proposed by President Jinping Xi, has a positive effect in intensive land use. It will let people rethinking the problems which appear in rapid urbanization process, especially country development transition and spatial restructure. In urbanization process, the Chinese government should reasonable and stable enforce the three red lines, at same time improves related laws or regulations. There are two objectives in this urbanization process, one is delimitate urban development dynamic boundary, and another one is urban renewal. In this land use model, it not only could realize sustainable intensive land use, but also becomes a successful model which could use in other populous nations, likes India.

Xinqi Zheng is a intensive land-use scientist at the School of Information Engineering, China University of Geosciences in Beijing.e-mail:

Minrui Zheng is a Ph.D candidate in Spatial Economics and Super Computing, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.e-mail: