From the snow-capped peaks of Tibet to the lush forests of Hainan, the state of Chinese conservation is changing. Beijing has announced plans to develop a country-wide national park system by 2030 to protect some of its most vulnerable ecosystems. The new system will bring significant administrative benefits to China’s protected lands and also boost the country’s image as a growing leader in environmental protection. While the announcement is an exciting development for conservationists, the new park system opens the door for Beijing to assert further control over ethnic minorities in remote regions of the country, undermining much of the image benefit China is seeking.
First proposed a decade ago, the initial five sites of China’s national park system have been in development since 2016. All five of the pilot sites aim to protect not only delicate ecosystems but also iconic and vulnerable Chinese animals. Giant Panda National Park, which stretches across Sichuan, Ningxia, and Shaanxi provinces in south-central China, was established to protect almost 30,000 square kilometers of panda habitat. Another park, Sanjiangyuan Park, covers an area that is home to rare Chinese mountain cats and snow leopards as well as the headwaters of three of the most important rivers in Asia: the Yellow, Yangtze, and Lancang/Mekong.
After being formally established in late 2021, it was announced in October 2022 that an additional 49 sites across 28 provinces are being considered as future parks, dramatically expanding the size of the fledgling system. This new proposal is not the first time China has set aside land for conservation. Roughly 15 percent of China is already protected in a patchwork system of national forest, wetland, and scenic parks across the country.
Previously, many national parks in China were actually managed locally. Some popular areas across the country had as many as three upper-level government departments directly involved in management. This layered system of local, regional, and national bureaucracy created a confusing and unnecessarily complex hierarchy. Interviews with management teams at one park revealed that different guidelines created interagency friction and contradictory policies for guests. To combat the issues, the new system aims to bring management under one unified system and administrative body, eliminating competing interests.
Improving administrative functions is just one of the motivating factors behind China’s new park system. Increasingly, China wants to be seen as a leader in global efforts to tackle climate change. However, as the largest carbon emitter and a major coal consumer, China’s environmental track record has weighed on its soft power. China and India both faced criticism for climate inaction from the Alliance of Small Island States at last year’s COP27 climate conference. Such criticism is normally directed against western countries.
Beijing wants to change this narrative and take on a bigger role in international climate and environmental governance. China presided over its first international environmental conference in 2022 when it ran show at the Montreal Biodiversity Conference of Parties. Expanding and improving its national park system is one way Beijing hopes to improve Chinese environmental soft power and temper criticism over its spotty environmental record.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has long emphasized environmental protection. In 2005, when he was Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province, Xi stated that “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as mountains of gold and silver.” Since becoming General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, Xi has put forward and repeatedly reaffirmed his goals of hitting peak emissions by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. Under his leadership, China has made significant progress in environmental protection, perhaps best exemplified by the country hitting its air quality goals a decade ahead of schedule. Investments in environmental protection also grew under Xi. Government spending on energy and the environment rose steadily from 2012 to 2019, though this trend reversed as the Covid-19 pandemic realigned priorities and strained Beijing’s coffers.
It is commendable that China is making contributions to global climate goals and environmental protection. Yet some of its actions raise significant concerns about human rights.
Sanjiangyuan National Park reveals possible issues that have arisen as land previously administered at the local level now falls under national jurisdiction. The area of the Tibetan Plateau that Sanjiangyuan Park protects is a hotspot of biodiversity, but it is also the home of upwards of 100,000 people who live either within the new park boundaries or just outside of them. China’s plan for Sanjiangyuan purports to involve local people in the management and experience of the park, simultaneously incorporating local culture while preserving the natural environment. But not everyone is convinced.
For nomadic Tibetan herders and other minority groups, the establishment of the national park is a worrying sign of encroachment by a national government that makes no secret of its plans to “Sinicize” non-Han populations. As the status of Sanjiangyuan has steadily ascended to national park status, herders have been removed from ancestral lands and barred from entering certain zones of the park, ostensibly to prevent erosion and environmental damage. Reports evaluating the project acknowledge that almost 75 percent of Sanjiangyuan National Park is a “core conservation zone,” excluding it from almost all economic activity and human interference.
Beijing has long sought to exert more control over the Tibetan Autonomous Region through a variety of means. The development of Tibet and other western provinces like Xinjiang is part of China’s plans to shore up its security interests along its borders and clamp down on ethnic minorities that Beijing perceives as dangerous to state stability. Across Tibet, Beijing has taken steps to disrupt and destroy elements of traditional Tibetan culture. In addition to its residential school system that reinforces Han culture, China has announced plans to relocate nearly 100,000 Tibetans away from traditional communities by 2030.
Amid these wider crackdowns, the establishment of Sanjiangyuan is another concerning piece of Chinese state-sponsored efforts to erase Tibetan identity. Chinese authorities appear to be using ecological protection as a justification to uproot nomadic and semi-nomadic groups and settle them in new urban corridors. This becomes even more concerning when considering that, of the 49 proposed national parks, 13 are in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau area and together account for 70 percent of the total area of the national park candidates.
It is important to note that China is by no means the first to use the creation of conservation areas to justify forced displacement. The United States forcibly removed Native Americans living in and around what is today Yellowstone National Park when establishing its first national park. Canada and India took similar actions while establishing their park systems. While setting aside land for conservation can be an important step towards strengthening environmental protection, these efforts are undermined by the objectionable process through which they are accomplished, both in China and elsewhere.
National policies always have mixed impacts on different stakeholders. In the case of China’s new national park system, environmental activists and administrators have reason to celebrate while ethnic minorities are rightfully wary. Unifying China’s current patchwork conservation system into a centralized one will improve the governance of these areas and allow more visitors to enjoy them while ensuring that the rich biodiversity within China is sufficiently protected. Unfortunately, the new system will also disrupt traditional ways of life and deepen the government’s reach. China deserves credit for taking steps towards greater environmental protection, but we would do well to consider the human costs of such policies and continue to pressure Beijing to respect the rights of ethnic minorities across the country.
Matt Slade was a research intern with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
by Matt Slade
— May 17, 2023