Jacob Dreyer is a writer and editor based in Shanghai and has contributed to Foreign Policy, Nature, FT Chinese, WSJ Chinese and other magazines about China and climate change.
DONGBEI, China — During the COVID-19 pandemic, as friends outside China went through lockdowns, restrictions and canceled travels, China’s surveillance state offered me the strange privilege of freely wandering within the confines of its national border. The globalized world as I’d known it shrank, but the countryside of China — from the towering Himalayas to the azure Pacific, the sweeping Manchurian forests, and gemlike villages set among glowing mountains of bamboo — opened itself up to me.
On my travels, I couldn’t help but wonder if the way governments would respond to climate change would play out in the same way as their responses to the pandemic. What if a democratic society simply can’t change fast enough? If America’s “democratic” structures are less capable than those of the Chinese in protecting citizens’ lives from obvious threats, I wondered: Is “democratic” really such a good word to describe them?
What if, as America remained mired in indecision, a single individual rose to the apex of an ancient civilization, consolidated power and decided that a radical green transformation is necessary? What if the Chinese Communist Party chairman commandeered the country’s propaganda apparatus to speak of climate change, and his words — repeated by every local official and plastered on every wall — were about ecological conservation?
In China, I never trust my initial reactions to policy pronouncements. I have vivid memories of the weekend in 2014 when Shanghai’s air quality was off-the-charts bad, and I lay in bed coughing for a weekend; or wandering around in the factory towns of the Pearl River Delta, with pollution in the water and the land. What the government says sounds good, of course, but is it true?
Carbon emissions keep rising in China, and if COVID served as a wake-up call to many in the Western world, it hasn’t really hit China in the same way: The narrative of endless economic growth is just as entrenched here as ever. How could China have it both ways, getting richer and greener at the same time? Wanting to see things with my own eyes, I left the city to explore the new green China that President Xi Jinping is trying to build, hoping to find, as he had promised, that “clear waters and green mountains are as good as gold and silver.”
In 2020, the northwest province of Qinghai formally opened the country’s first national park, Sanjiangyuan, an area nearly as big as England. It was the first of China’s rapidly growing national park system, which senior political leaders are directing. The park system was first mentioned in the Party’s 12th five year plan, which covered the years 2011 to 2015 and was released prior to Xi Jinping’s ascension to power. Xi has subsequently made a point of emphasizing his personal interest in national parks, and his aphorism “clear waters and green mountains are as good as gold and silver” (“绿山青水是金山银山”) is written on red propaganda banners in villages, towns and natural preservation areas all around the country.
At present, there are 10 national park pilot projects in China involving 12 provinces, comprising approximately 2.3% of the country’s land area. The government intends to preserve a quarter of its national territory — less than is called for by the “30 by 30 initiative,” an international coalition of countries attempting to preserve 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030, but these numbers are scaling up quickly. Xi is personally tied to the vision of carbon neutrality by 2060 and to the new park system, so these ecological initiatives could go a long way toward proving exactly how powerful the Party is in China today.
Ecological politics are also linked to other priorities in Beijing, like anti-corruption politics — or as the state-run news site Xinhua calls it, China’s “political ecology.” Xi intervenes personally when villas are illegally constructed in ecological protection zones, to ensure water supplies are clean or shut down polluting factories. Top officials with close connections to the fossil fuel industry have been deposed, perhaps because of the environmental destruction that follows fossil fuel extraction and the ready flow of cash that resource extraction generates.
Despite the opaque politics of China’s central government, it’s clear that the current trend toward power consolidation has coincided with a stronger emphasis on clean air, water and public resources, whose destruction has created private fortunes in a way that is antithetical to social stability. Following China’s recent crackdown on technology firms, Morgan Stanley advised clients to avoid the coal and fossil fuel industry — such an unpopular category, they warned, looked highly vulnerable to a future crackdown.
The Great Northern Wilderness
I was traveling with my partner, a native of Heilongjiang’s oil city, Daqing, deep in the northeastern region of Dongbei, or Manchuria. Her perspective helped me to stay grounded in the realities of the lives of local people and how exploitation of fossil fuels, forests and other natural resources had driven human settlement here. The first stop on our summer journey into China’s ecological preservation project was the Korean autonomous prefecture of Yanbian. On the plane during our descent, the flight attendants insisted that we close the window shades; the only airport in the capital city, Yanji, is a dual civilian-military one, and we weren’t supposed to see North Korea, even from the sky.
Yanji’s Mount Maoer, just behind the grand Yanbian Hotel, had been a preserved area since the 1980s at the behest of Deng Xiaoping, the country’s leader from 1978 to 1989. In Yanji’s night market, we saw local honey, blueberries and traditional medicinal herbs harvested from the mountains for sale.
As we hiked up the mountain on a muggy July morning, signs told us that Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic, had visited in 1962, right after the Korean War. An article describing the moment noted that Zhou was an advocate of ecological preservation and tree planting, that he believed forests were a vital national resource and useful for preventing environmental destruction. Sometimes, such claims that the Party had always had an ecological bent feel revisionist, but even such revisions are a signal about the future direction of national ideology.
Dongbei has been deeply marked by the Party and the revolutionary terraforming projects it has engaged in during the past seven decades. In the early years after the Party came to power in 1949, Dongbei’s empty space was a tabula rasa for massive human projects, like the exploitation of the Daqing oil fields and the transformation of “the great northern wilderness” (“北大荒”) into “the great northern granary” (“北大仓”).
Intellectuals, or “文艺青年,” were sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasants and, in the process, radically transform the physical environment of Dongbei. The intent of this movement was to dramatically flatten the differences between cities and rural areas, as well as between the middle and working classes. The thinking was that these different social classes, geographically and materially separate, would not find common purpose until they were forced to share a common task. Ding Ling, one of modern China’s most famous writers, remembered “lumbering in the snow, drilling wells, melting cooking water from ice and building barracks. The vast wilderness and the undulating mountain ranges of the great northern wilderness were captivating. … [We were] actually waging a war against heaven and earth.”
The landscape that we saw — natural, architectural and, more importantly, social — was constructed at that time. Work units, collective teams and Party initiatives transformed Dongbei’s “wilderness” into a central driver of the Chinese economy and of socialist Chinese identity. The history was all around: in the aging residential tower blocks in cities like Yanji and Mudanjiang, in the comments by locals that North Korea’s society still had collective unity and purpose, in the fields of corn, potatoes and wheat that we saw stretching across the sunny, warm countryside.
But in recent decades, that Dongbei identity has broken down. In one popular television show, a character based on a real-life mafioso in the area said that he only joined the mafia because society around him was decomposing. The social structures created in the massive project of building a new China have been rotting as talented people emigrate, particularly to Shanghai and America. Slowly but surely, Dongbei has become a problem for China: a patriotic and beautiful region that never found its place as the country became capitalist.
The sociologist Manuel Castells might have had China in mind when he wrote in 1997:
The global economy will expand… But it will do so selectively, linking valuable segments and discarding irrelevant locales and people. The territorial unevenness of production will result in an extraordinary geography of differential value making that will sharply contrast countries, regions and metropolitan areas…. The planet is being segmented into clearly distinct spaces, defined by different time regimes.
Dongbei’s economy has always had three legs: industry, agriculture and forestry. Industry has decayed, agriculture is slowly being mechanized and automated, and forestry is more restricted these days. Dongbei once made sense as a society; it makes less sense as a place of floating, atomized individuals. As the state retreated, life lost meaning. And every year, it’s gotten hotter and hotter. When we were there, it was nearly 99 degrees Fahrenheit. How, we wondered, could China’s embrace of state-driven ecological policies give this region a new reason for being?
Driving through sunny forests reminiscent of northern Europe, with signposts for the tiger and leopard park next to the highway, we stopped at Ning’an County, the site of a gigantic inland lake. The feeling of this place is a world away from Shanghai or Beijing, with rich, green hills and deep-rooted communities of friends who have known each other since childhood.
At the lake itself, we negotiated discounted boat tickets via our driver and cruised the crystal blue expanse. Tour group tickets were entirely sold out, and one rural dock was almost uncomfortably crowded at 9 a.m.
There’s a hunger for nature among ordinary Chinese people that can’t always find an outlet; a whole micro-economy here is sustained by preserving this lake and ecosystem, and the lakeshore is dotted by dachas and fishing huts. As we hiked through a forest at the northern tip of the lake, different tree, animal and flower species were signposted. Away from the bigger groups of tourists, I was reminded of the serenity of Glacier National Park in Montana.
China has long had a patchwork of parks, ecological protection zones and tourist attractions, and the government has been reconstructing forestlands since the “grain to green” policy (“退耕还林”) began in 1999. But it wasn’t until 10 or so years ago that the population began demanding a clean and beautiful environment. A rising middle class, a new emphasis on ecology and nature, and forceful initiatives from the government have helped China to scale up a national parks program very quickly.
The parks are as high-tech as Chinese cities. In the Siberian Tiger Park on the border with Russia and North Korea, heat-sensor technology prevents poachers from trespassing. Poverty alleviation can be folded into these efforts. In Sanjiangyuan, herders receive 1,800 yuan (almost $300) a month in income from the park, and they participate in its protection and management, including establishing thousands of ecological public welfare jobs: forest rangers, tourist infrastructure maintenance workers, wetlands and water resources managers and more. Pudacuo National Park, in Yunnan Province, invests more than 15 million yuan ($2.3 million) from tourism revenues in local communities each year. Ultimately, if these efforts work well, they would function almost like a universal basic income program for locals, where they’d get paid to preserve the environment.
The national park system is expected to be fully complete by 2030. Even with high-level support, the mission to preserve China’s ecological civilization is challenging. The Heihe-Tengchong Line, an imaginary border that divides China into two areas that are roughly equal geographically but vastly different in population, shows how stark the country’s regional disparities are: 94% of the population lives on the east side of the line, 6% on the other. The western side, in addition to being sparsely populated, is plagued by poverty. And yet, some of the most beautiful landscapes are on the western side: the deserts of Xinjiang, inner Mongolian grasslands, the Himalayas in Tibet.
In short, poverty goes hand in hand with the natural beauty and low population of many of the areas that are most obviously suited to parks. Western village and provincial leaders have an imperative to champion economic development, hoping it will boost enthusiasm for the Chinese dream among some ethnic minorities and impoverished areas. But in the process, they risk destroying the traditional folkways, village cultures and pristine ecologies that are of such iconic value to China and to the world.
The problem, then, is simple: In development, local leaders must balance concrete economic benefits with the costs of pursuing abstract environmental goals and the pressures of tourism when destinations become popular. Little wonder that they often pursue development. But in trying to do what they think is best for their local constituents, they may end up destroying what 94% of the Chinese population from the urbanized coast finds to be of greatest value.
The New Long March
In Marxist theory, the state withers away at a certain point — after achieving what some might call “moderate prosperity” (which is indeed the Party’s official goal). If the state doesn’t want to wither, it must find an external struggle to unify society under a single banner, papering over differences of region, ethnicity and ideology.
The local history museum in Mudanjiang is filled with extremely chauvinistic exhibitions about Communist martyrs, but when we visited, we found a special area to commemorate eight soldiers who died fighting forest fires in 1996. It struck me as a first run of what might come in the country’s fight against climate change: patriotism wrapped in ecological preservation.
The COVID-19 pandemic similarly offered a script for how the Party might internalize and broadcast the challenges of climate change: bold scientists, humble but patriotic common people who sometimes give up their lives for society, scientific solutions enabled by patriotic national unity under the guidance of the Party — what Wang Yi, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, called a “new long march,” mobilizing the nostalgic and much-revised memories of the Party to commence an all-of-society transformation.
A government that specializes in dramatic announcements, militarized campaigns and massive infrastructural feats is limbering up for a new challenge, one in which Chinese nationalism explicitly revolves around natural landscapes and the ways that people live in and around them. The new Chinese passports, like American passports, have various landscapes from around the country on each page. The final page of the U.S. passport is the moon. One of the final pages of the Chinese passport is Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan.
Climate change is bringing hard times to the world, but all that most people in Dongbei and across China have ever known are hard times, with a brief intermission of affluent consumerism for a small segment of the population. In fact, many in Dongbei are nostalgic for the era of shared, common purpose that they associate with high socialism, even if they are materially better off today. These emotions are sometimes vulgarized as “nationalism,” since they flow into support for China, the Party and propagandized scenes of Xi benevolently interacting with poor villagers in the countryside.
As the parks grow, industries shift toward greener processes and climate diplomacy becomes a signal gesture at global climate conferences (like the one China is hosting in the fall), the Party is aiming to align around a new purpose even more compelling than a Cold War rerun. China has transformed its built environment in a single lifetime. Now, they’re getting ready to do it again.