Apr 12th, 2024

China's National Park System: Progress and Challenges

Cai Huajie

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The establishment of national parks is a common practice worldwide aimed at preserving natural ecosystems, and China also aims to achieve nature conservation and advance ecological civilization through the creation of national parks. China's efforts in natural ecosystem preservation can be traced back to 1956, marked by the establishment of Dinghu Mountain National Nature Reserve. The first national park in China dates back to June 2007, with the formation of Pudacuo National Park in Shangri-La, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. Additionally, China has established nearly 20 types of diverse and functionally varied natural conservation areas at all levels and in all types, including scenic spots, geological parks, wetland parks, forest parks, marine special protection zones, and more.

However, before the XVIII National Congress of the Communist Party of China explicitly called for a national park system, China's nature reserve faced problems with a fragmented management system, such as cross-overlapping, multi-agency management, unclear boundaries, and undefined rights and responsibilities. The balance between ecological conservation and resource utilization wasn't properly addressed. The connection between environmental protection and economic development posed challenges. Additionally, issues such as unclear legal delineation of land rights and discrepancies between ownership and usage rights also contributed to the ineffective protection of natural ecosystems in these protected areas. In response, since the XVIII National Congress, China has used the establishment of a national park system as an opportunity to further advance the construction of the country's nature reserve system.

In November 2013, the Third Plenary Session of the XVIII Central Committee of the Communist Party of China initiated the reform of “establishing the national park system.” Following this, in January 2015, China selected nine provinces and municipalities, including Beijing, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, Fujian, Hubei, Hunan, Yunnan, and Qinghai, to conduct a three-year trial of experimental system reforms. This initiative aimed at emphasizing ecological protection, standardizing management practices, clarifying resource ownership boundaries, fostering innovative operational management, and advancing community development.


In September 2017, China confirmed ten trial areas, marking the comprehensive launch of the construction of national parks in the country. The XIX National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017 proposed the establishment of a “nature reserve system with national parks as the main body.” On October 12, 2021, the Chinese government announced the establishment of the first batch of national parks, including Sanjiangyuan National Park, the Giant Panda National Park, the Amur Tiger and Leopard National Park, Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park, and the Wuyi Mountains National Park. In 2022, during the XX National Congress of the Communist Party of China, there was a reiteration of the commitment to “promote the establishment of a nature reserve system with national parks as the main body.”

On November 5, 2022, during the opening ceremony of the 14th Conference of the Parties to the Ramsar Convention, President Xi Jinping announced China's commitment to establishing a series of national parks, covering approximately 10% of the country's terrestrial land area. This initiative aims to incorporate around 11 million hectares of wetlands into the national park system, with a specific focus on developing wetland-type national parks. Notable parks in this plan include Sanjiangyuan, Qinghai Lake, Ruoergai Grassland, Yellow River Estuary, Liaohe River Estuary, Songnen Plain Crane Sanctuary, and others.


In December 2022, China selected 49 candidate national park areas (including the already established 5), comprising 44 terrestrial, 2 integrated terrestrial-marine, and 3 marine areas, with a total area of approximately 1.1 million square kilometers. On August 19, 2023, at the Second National Park Forum held in Xining city, Qinghai province, Director Guan Zhiou of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration (National Park Administration) announced that they will prudently and orderly advance the establishment of new national parks, including Yellow River Estuary, Qianjiangyua-Baishanzu, and Kalamaili. Therefore, in the foreseeable future, China will continue to create more national parks, gradually establishing its own comprehensive national park system.

In summary, over the past decade, China's experimentation with the national park system and subsequent reforms have centered on three key issues, yielding notable progress.

1.Reforming Management System: Addressing Cross-Overlap and Fragmentation

In the construction and management of various types of nature reserves in China, the issue of fragmentation in management does exist. ①By consolidating the management functions of relevant existing agencies, the newly established national parks have achieved unified and independent management at their initial stage. For instance, on March 12, 2017, the Wuyishan National Park Management Bureau was established. It operates under the direct supervision of the Fujian Provincial Government and is tasked with executing the unified protection, management, and operation of all state-owned natural resources within the national park. This has laid the foundation for a management model of “one sign with one management.” In 2018, when the National Forestry and Grassland Administration was created, it included the additional oversight of the National Park Administration, under the principle of “one sign with one management,” assuming the responsibility for overseeing and managing various types of nature reserves in China. Meanwhile, a “bureau-province integrated responsibility work system” has also been established.


2.Exploring Natural Resource Ownership Solutions within the National Park


One of the significant challenges in China's ecological and environmental protection is the underdevelopment of laws and regulations concerning the ownership of state-owned natural assets. This has resulted in a failure to fully implement ownership rights and interests for legal owners. China has historically employed decentralized management and registration of natural resources, leading to inconsistencies in registration methods, crafting, procedures, and content across various types of natural resources. Consequently, this approach has given rise to substantial problems, including overlapping management of natural resources, unclear ownership boundaries, and ambiguous attribution of rights.


To address this, it is essential to conduct a unified and accurate registration of natural resource rights, gradually demarcating the boundaries between state-owned and collective ownership, delineating the exercise of ownership boundaries between state-owned ownership and government at different levels, as well as the boundaries among various collective owners. Since 2019, the country has been implementing a natural resource rights registration system, with the first batch of such registrations scheduled for completion by 2023.


As of September 2023, the registration of Wuyishan National Park's Fujian Region has been finalized, totaling an registration area of 1001.4114 square kilometers. According to the delineation of rights, the state-owned land comprises 336.3434 square kilometers, while the collectively owned land constitutes 665.0680 square kilometers. Additionally, the construction of national parks in China aims to “ensure that state-owned natural assets hold a dominant position.”

To achieve this goal, two main approaches have been employed in practice. One approach involves the transferring of collectively owned land and natural resources within the core protection zone, with the consent of its owners, through methods such as transfer, lease, equity participation, mortgage, or other means. These land and natural resources are then to be centrally managed by the National Park Administration. If consensus cannot be reached through negotiation, then, in accordance with the law, the land and natural resources will be expropriated, with ecological compensation provided.


The other approach involves the unified management of collectively owned land and natural resources situated outside the core protection zone, through cooperative agreements between the National Park Management Authority and collective organizations.

3.Harmonizing Conservation and Development: Exploring New Mechanisms in National Park Construction

China, with its large and densely populated population, faces the challenge of having indigenous people residing within the boundaries of most national parks. Consequently, the conflict between conservation and development becomes particularly prominent during the construction of these national parks. In response, each experimental area is proactively exploring new mechanisms to achieve win-win scenarios between conservation and development. The goal is to establish a harmonious coexistence between humans and nature within the framework of the national park system. These initiatives seek to seamlessly integrate national park construction with broader strategic and policy objectives such as poverty alleviation and the improvement of people's livelihoods.


For instance, in the Sanjiangyuan National Park, substantial efforts have been undertaken to provide employment assistance and enhance the income status of indigenous people. The concept of constructing a “Chinese-style national park” has been introduced, emphasizing the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature. Within the Sanjiangyuan region, 562 ecological joint-stock animal husbandry cooperatives have been established. Through pasture demarcation and rotational grazing plans, the ecological condition of the grasslands has steadily improved. Over the last five years, forage yield in the Lagari village pasture has increased by 10.5%, with vegetation coverage rising from 60% to 80%. In 2019, the Lagari Ecological Animal Husbandry Cooperative recorded a total income of 12 million yuan, resulting in a dividend of 5.7 million yuan. The average dividend per household was 31,666.67 yuan, leading to an average per capita income increase of 6,242 yuan for 288 registered impoverished households. ①


Certainly, from the perspective of (socialist) ecological civilization theory and practice, China's construction of national parks still faces many challenges. The economic essence of China's national parks lies in the fact that the state serve as the major entity for ecological products. And through the collective efforts of the government, businesses, and associations, its goal is to ensure that all members of society can fairly enjoy their ecological rights. However, in reality, this poses both cognitive and behavioral challenges simultaneously for government regulatory agencies, national park management entities, and business (individual) operators.


For instance, the requirement for individuals to make concessions for the sake of public interest has always been a sensitive issue. Mishandling the relationship between public interest and individual rights may lead to social conflicts, as exemplified by the challenging issue of requiring indigenous populations to undergo ecological relocation to protect national parks. In Wuyishan Nature Reserve, for instance, indigenous people have been relocated multiple times as per government mandates, extending from the construction of Wuyi Palace in the 1980s to the declaration of World Heritage status in the 1990s. Despite local government initiatives, such as offering livelihood projects like tea tourism for the indigenous population, when considering the trade-off between the costs and benefits of developing the scenic area, they continue to feel that they haven't received an equitable share. Ultimately, with the implementation of a fenced-off management system in the scenic area, local farmers chose to participate in vigorous protest activities.


Another example is the discovery of profit-oriented excessive commercial development in nature reserves during two rounds of central ecological and environmental protection inspections. For instance, the Lanhai Yuntian Golf Course in Sanya city, Hainan province, encroached on the Ganshiling Provincial Nature Reserve. Additionally, the Wansheng Economic and Technological Development Zone in Chongqing city incorporated 43.9 square kilometers of buffer zones and core areas from the Heishan County-level Nature Reserve in its tourism planning. This led to the unlawful occupation of the protected area by real estate projects, village hotels, and tourist facilities. These are typical cases of violations uncovered during the inspections.

These existing issues requires us to pay special attention to the realization of the principles of “ecological protection priority” and “public welfare for all” in national parks. Therefore, firstly, it is necessary to appropriately manage the relationship between people and the land within the national parks' scope. Practical experience has shown that decisions regarding the relocation of indigenous people from core areas should align with the principle of ecological protection priority and be specifically tailored to the unique circumstances of each national park, considering factors such as its location and reserve nature. Secondly, we need to continuously explore ways to resist capital erosion and increase benefits for the entire population. For businesses granted special approval to operate within the “public welfare” framework of national parks, they must be placed under the overall goals set by the national park management authority and undergo thorough supervision. They should not be allowed to operate and regulate themselves solely based on the principles of market economy, and the resulting benefits should be fairly distributed among the government, enterprises, and the public.



[①] For instance, in Anhui Province, there are currently 52 forest parks. However, management exhibits cross-overlapping in as many as 20 areas, constituting a high overlap rate of 38.5%. This includes overlaps with 6 nature reserves, 15 scenic spots, and 9 geological parks. Additionally, there is 1 instance of overlap with both a nature reserve and a scenic spot, and 5 overlaps with both a scenic spot and a geological park and 2 triple overlaps involving a nature reserve, a scenic spot, and a geological park.

[②] In 2011, E Duo, the former head of Lagari Village's Second Team, spearheaded the establishment of the Lagari Village Professional Cooperative. Comprising 217 individuals (26.3% of the total village population) from 36 households (20.6% of the total village households), the cooperative initially owned 6,000 acres of summer pasture and 74 yaks. Over time, the cooperative's development shifted predominantly towards a joint-stock structure. Herders became shareholders by contributing cash and goods, resulting in a herders' membership rate of 98.9%, and livestock and pasture participation rates of 98.8% and 95.9%, respectively. This transformative approach deviated from the traditional scattered breeding model of individual households, converting 181 herder households in the entire village from mere resource users to equity holders, funds to capital stock, and herders to shareholders.

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From environmental, industrial and social policies to urban development or technological innovation. “Policy Papers” offers concise and accessible analyses and commentary on a variety key issues and current developments to political decision makers academics, activists, and the wider public.

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