China national parks plan betrays fear of climate and regime change
China unveiled a plan for its first national parks on Friday, the final day of the COP15 conference in Kunming. It reveals the weight of Party concerns about pollution and biodiversity fragmentation, and their impact on political stability.
China’s recent announcement that it will create its first batch of national parks went almost completely unnoticed outside the country.
This is odd, because the decision matters a great deal – and not just to the pandas in the soon-to-be-formed Giant-Panda National Park, or the few remaining big cats in the also-upcoming Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park.
What it also betrays is a fear – growing and hardening in the heart of the ruling communist party – that the environmental damage wrought by decades of uncontrolled growth could cause widespread unrest.
And when that happens, in this oldest of extant civilizations, the first people who get it in the neck tend to be those who set the rules that others obey.
The plans, revealed on Friday, are not a new idea.
China first flirted with forming an institutional system to protect its fragile eco-systems in 1956. Two years later, Chairman Mao unveiled his five-year plan, later known as the ‘Great leap forward’.
Instead of propelling China into the top tier of economic powers, it left millions dead, and a land denuded of trees. Amid the chaos that followed, the park plans were scrapped.
So, why revisit them now?
For one thing, it’s long overdue. More than 100 countries have a national parks system. The United States led the way in 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone; Australia (1879), Switzerland (1914) and Argentina (1922) all followed.
In 2017, The Lancet estimated that 1.24 million premature deaths were caused each year in China by air pollution
By the start of this year, China had around 10,000 nature reserves, but they were typically small and unconnected to other wildlife havens.
Its national parks system, which will oversee 230,000 square kilometres of land, stretching from Tibet to the southern island of Hainan, follows the US model, in that the new reserves can be visited by humans but not inhabited by them.
Another reason is that it makes sense from a public relations point of view. China revealed its park plans on the final day of the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), this year held in Kunming.
At the event, China, the UK, France and others unveiled new biodiversity plans and funds. More talks will take place in Geneva in January before delegates return – hopefully in person – to the southwest Chinese city next April.
But by far the biggest reason is that China can no longer ignore the more overt and insidious effects of endemic pollution and biodiversity fragmentation.
In their 2019 World Air Quality Report, Greenpeace and the Swiss technology group IQAir found that of the world’s 200 most polluted cities, 90% were in China or India. Worse, 98% of China’s cities breached World Health Organisation rules on PM2.5, the fine particles that impair lung function and cause heart disease.
And in 2017, The Lancet, the respected UK peer-reviewed medical journal, estimated that 1.24 million premature deaths were caused each year in China by air pollution.
In 2019, when Euromoney met Ma Jun, chairman of the China Green Finance Committee and member of the central bank’s monetary policy committee, he said 75% of the country’s water was polluted.
Just cleaning up the land, he warned, would cost at least Rmb50 trillion ($7.8 trillion) or about 50% of GDP.
For years, air pollution was a silent killer, ever-present yet mostly ignored, except on the days when anti-cyclones cause weather systems to stall and visibility in Beijing to fall to as little as 100 metres.
But as China gets richer, its people want more. They go abroad and realise they no longer want to return home to eat, drink and breathe pollution. They visit fecund national parks in Tanzania, Scotland or Chile, and return to a homeland that should be – but isn’t – rich in natural biodiversity.
Throughout its history, China's kings and emperors have been toppled when floods or famine consumed the land. When food was scarce, whole dynasties fell.
That won’t happen today: China in 2021 is Asia’s largest economy and more than capable of feeding its people.
But what of next year, or 10 years’ time? If it suffers a massive biodiversity shock, if the land stops supporting crop growth, if cancer rates spike, if enraged people take to the streets to remonstrate because their children cannot breathe – what then?
Would growth stall? Would China’s credit rating slip or tumble? Would global institutional capital – and even its own people – flee?
The threat of climate change causes senior party mandarins to fret. The prospect of resulting regime change would get them quaking in their boots.
Hence the national parks strategy. Hence the rush.
“Energy change is at the top of the mind of policymakers when I speak to them,” notes one Shanghai-based ESG analyst. “Biodiversity is second. The government cares about it – and it kind of scares them, as there is no obvious solution.”