A watershed moment for China’s green leap

On Aug. 15, 2005, Xi Jinping paid a visit to the hillside town of Anji and spoke about the importance of taking care of nature. He famously said that "lucid waters and lush mountains are as invaluable as silver and gold," which can be seen as a watershed moment in modern Chinese history.

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This aerial photo taken on Aug. 11, 2023 shows a local library installed with photovoltaic panels on its roof and decorations around in Yucun Village of Anji County, east China's Zhejiang Province. (Xinhua/Weng Xinyang)

On Aug. 15, 2005, Xi Jinping, who was then Party secretary of China’s Zhejiang Province, paid a visit to the beautiful, forest-clad, hillside town of Anji, about an hour from Hangzhou. At Anji, Xi spoke about the importance of taking care of nature and famously said that “lucid waters and lush mountains are as invaluable as silver and gold.”

The Anji speech can be seen as a watershed moment in modern Chinese history. At that time, economic growth in China came with a lot of pollution. Now China is a world leader in green growth. At the time the entire focus of China, understandably, was on high growth to lift all Chinese out of poverty. Now it’s all about high-quality growth.

This year China decided to commemorate Aug. 15 as National Ecology Day to make sure the inspiration from the Anji speech is turned into action all over China.

Using the words “lucid waters and lush mountains,” Xi highlighted two critical insights which should lead China and the world in the 21st Century.

Nature has enduring value to us. Humans cannot survive if we don’t take better care of Mother Earth. We need to create a beautiful China in a beautiful world.

The other insight is that green is gold. By going green we can create prosperity and jobs and make life better for people. Nations that move fast in a green direction capture markets and lead economic development.

Interestingly, Zhejiang Province has become a shining example of how China has “waged war” on pollution and benefitted from green growth.

I visited Pujiang County a few years ago and saw the wonderful transformation of rural Zhejiang. Zhejiang experienced horrible pollution up to only two decades ago. Pollutants in the rivers dyed the water white, so they were called “milky rivers” due to pollutants. Now over 97 percent of the surface water in Zhejiang is of excellent quality. The West Lake in Hangzhou and other lakes have been restored to their former beauty. No wonder the ancient Chinese said that “above is heaven, on Earth is Suzhou and Hangzhou.”

Zhejiang has also positioned the province as a global frontrunner for green high-tech. Companies like Alibaba, the car producer Geely, and cobalt developer Huayou are indispensable for the green shift.

Huzhou, the city where Anji is located, is developing into a foremost Chinese ecotown with wonderful facilities for green tourism, hillside and lakeside resorts, and the protection of endangered birds.

Zhejiang was the center of the Song dynasty during the 1100s and 1200s, by far the most developed state in the world at the time. Hangzhou was 15 times bigger than Paris, the largest city in Europe. The Italian traveler Marco Polo was amazed after he returned from Hangzhou and called it “paradise on Earth.” He tried to convince skeptical Europeans of the wonderland at the other end of the Silk Road. Now Zhejiang is recovering its place at the top of global development.

But of course, what has happened in Zhejiang is part of the much wider green transformation of China which will be celebrated on National Ecology Day. One country alone, China, is now between 60 and 80 percent of all solar, wind and hydropower in the world as well as of high speed rail and electric cars. China is establishing one of the largest national park systems in the world and is by far the biggest global tree planter. It is also taking the lead in mangrove restoration.

The green transformation of China in the last decade stands out in the world because no other nation has embarked upon green development with the same speed and determination.

At National Ecology Day it is also time to look ahead. While celebrating the huge progress over the last decade, China should set its eyes on a circular economy for ecological civilization, speed up the green tech revolution further, and use the Belt and Road as a vehicle for global investments and shared best practices.

A lot has been achieved, but the future can be even brighter!

Erik Solheim

Erik Solheim is president of the Green Belt and Road Institute, former under-secretary-general of the United Nations, and former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

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