Xiong LEI

Pacific Environment member examines litter on a beach on Guangdong’s coast. Chinese law stipulates that all natural resources in China belong to the state. Part of forests, land, and water in rural areas can be collectively owned, but not individually. PHOTO BY WEN BO.

Claiming a land territory of 9.6 million square kilometers and a marine territory of 4.72 million square kilometers, China once was considered to be a vast territory with abundant resources. But since the late 1970s the country has increasingly found its natural resources limited, given its huge population of 1.33 billion.

With the recognition of its limits in natural resources and the impact of these limits on its growth, China has intensified it efforts to preserve natural resources since the 1980s. A legal frame work, currently with twenty-five laws and over 2,000 administrative decrees and regulations, has been set up to preserve and rationalize the use of natural resources, but while it needs to be perfected, the country lacks an administrative body to oversee the preservation of natural resources and an efficient regime to enforce the laws.


Land has been regarded as the source of life in China since ancient times, and inequitable distribution of land ownership was the cause of many peasant uprisings and revolutions. The first action that the new government took after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949 was to redistribute land among the country’s vast peasantry populace, who accounted for more than 90 percent of the population. Even though China actually annulled private ownership of land in the late 1960s, land has remained its most precious natural resource. Yet, China’s per capita land area is 0.8 hectare, only 29 percent of the world average, although China ranks third in the world in terms of total land mass. Because more than two-thirds of China’s land territory is covered by hills and mountains—many denying accessibility—and deserts, China’s arable farmland is meager at 0.11 hectare per capita, one-third of the world average.

These limited land resources, arable farmland in particular, are giving way to urbanization, mining, and desertification. From 1993 to 2003 alone, according to the Ministry of Land and Resources, China lost 6.6 million hectares of arable farmland, mainly to urban expansion and desertification.

China has felt its disadvantages in other resources as well. China leads the world in reserves of a number of minerals, but after they are divided by its population, the quantity drops below average. Among China’s 171 discovered varieties of minerals, 45 are in low per capita quantity, less than half of the world average. The per capita quantity of petroleum is merely 11 percent of the world average, and that of natural gas is only 4.5 percent.

Since 1949 the People’s Republic of China has basically followed the concept of self-reliance and based its development on its own resources, although since the 1990s it has relied more and more on importation of such resources as petroleum, iron ore, and timber. With the recognition of its limits in natural resources and the impact of these limits on its growth, China has taken efforts to preserve its natural resources.


China has yet to enact a general law on the preservation of natural resources, but the revised Constitution in 1978 incorporates the provision that the state protect the environment and natural resources, which marks the first time that environmental protection and preservation of natural resources entered the country’s fundamental law. The Law of Environmental Protection enacted in December 1989 covers all the natural and human elements that may affect human subsistence and development, embracing water, marine, land, mineral, forestry, grassland, wildlife resources, and natural and cultural heritages. This means that the Chinese concept of environmental protection covers natural resources as well. Twenty-five laws and more than two thousand administrative decrees and regulations focus on or are related to the preservation of designated natural resources, including land, mineral, energy, forestry, grassland, wildlife, water, fisheries, marine, and space resources. These laws constitute a legal framework aimed to rationalize the use of natural resources and guarantee a coordinated and harmonious development of human society and nature. China is also a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, two UN documents that call for the preservation of natural resources.

Chinese law stipulates that all natural resources in China belong to the state. Part of forests, land, and water in rural areas can be collectively owned, but individuals can obtain the right only to use rather than to own these resources. Although laws permit legitimate transfer of this “right to use” resources such as with land, no individual or organization can sell land per se.

The main goal of legislation regarding the preservation of land resources is to maintain the size of farmland, preventing its further shrinkage from urban expansion. Governments at various levels must have their respective master plans that divide land into three categories: farmland, land for construction and other use, and barren wasteland. Each category has specific regulations, and deterioration, devastation, encroachment, and acquisition of cropland are not allowed. Although laws encourage organizations and individuals to reclaim wild land under the prerequisite of protecting and improving the ecosystem and guarding against wetland erosion and desertification, with priority given to farming, the laws forbid any reclamation at the cost of forests, grassland, and lakes. Since 1998 action has been taken to return farmland so reclaimed to forests, grassland, and lakes.

The same principle is applied to the preservation of wetlands, wildlife, and marine aquatic products. With a forest coverage of 18.1 percent, compared with the world average of 30 percent, China ranks 130th in forest coverage in the world and is among the most impoverished in forest resources. Between the 1950s and the 1990s the area of natural wetlands shrank by 36 percent, and 15 to 20 percent of wildlife species are on the verge of extinction. In order to preserve these resources, China has adopted laws to ban the logging of natural forests in the upper reaches of main river systems, to stop the reclamation of wetlands in the northeast, to ban the hunting of endangered wildlife species, and to enforce periodic fishing bans along the coast. Meanwhile, a quota system is imposed on logging of artificial forests; the rate of consumption must not surpass the rate of forestation.

Laws on the preservation of grassland resources prohibit overgrazing and digging shrubs or medicinal herbs in desertified or semidesertified grassland areas, lest the vulnerable vegetation be further damaged.

Legislation regarding mineral resources highlights the principles of exploiting resources in the course of protecting resources and vice versa. Although the state forbids private ownership of mineral resources, exploration and mining rights can be granted to qualified investors. Mining enterprises are levied resource taxes and compensations and are obligated to recover any cropland, grassland, or forests damaged by mining. All environmental/resource laws have provisions of legal liability. Violations can incur punishment ranging from penalties to imprisonment or even capital punishment.

Saving Energy

China relies on multipurpose and economical use of its natural resources, particularly minerals and energy, as a means to preserve these precious resources. As a rapidly developing country with an annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate averaging above 9 percent for the past twenty-eight years, China is an energy-consuming giant. Because of backward technologies, however, China lags far behind industrialized countries in energy efficiency. According to the Energy Development Report of China 2007, prepared by the International Energy Agency, China’s energy consumption for every $1 million of GDP is 2.5 times that of the United States, 5 times that of the European Union, and 9 times that of Japan.

However, the Chinese government has always advocated reducing consumption and saving energy. Between 1980 and 2000 the country managed an average GDP growth rate of 9.7 percent at an average energy consumption growth rate of 4.6 percent. At the end of 2005 China went further to set a target of reducing its energy consumption by 20 percent between 2006 and 2010. The central government has signed energy-saving accountability pacts with governors, and failure to reach the energy-saving goal may affect the promotion of concerned officials. In 2006 the yearly growth rate of per unit of GDP energy consumption dropped by 1.2 percent, and during the first six months of 2007 the figure dropped by 2.78 percent. Although these figures fell short of the annual reduction rate of 4 percent, the progress has boosted China’s confidence in accomplishing the 20 percent reduction rate by 2010. Meanwhile, China has accelerated the pace to develop renewable energy resources, including hydropower, wind power, biogas, and solar energy.

Nature Reserves

With more than 30,000 species of higher plants and 6,266 species of vertebrates, China is rich in wildlife resources. Yet, low forest coverage, soil erosion, desertification, and deforestation and other human exploitation have led to the reduction of biodiversity and endangered the domains of wildlife. Statistics from the State Forestry Administration indicate that 44 percent of wild fauna and 29 percent of wild flora are yet to stabilize.

China places a priority on setting up nature reserves and takes the establishment of such reserves as a measurement of the nation’s level of civilization. Since 1956, when China set up its first nature reserve at Dinghushan in Guangdong Province, the country has established 2,349 nature reserves covering 1.5 million square kilometers, or 15.6 percent of the country’s land territory. The reserves have preserved ecosystems ranging from forests, grasslands, alpine meadows, deserts, wetlands, and inland water areas to marine and offshore areas. The reserves include rare and endangered species of wildlife, distributed from the “roof of the world” on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to marshlands in the coastal areas. The current annual budget for the national reserves is 445 million yuan.

Although the nature reserves disallow any attempt at economic development, dereliction of duty in management does occur, coupled with unauthorized tourism and other misconduct. These factors constitute challenges to the preservation of natural resources in the reserves. Residents who had lived in the spheres of the reserves before their establishment may also pose problems, and their attempts at subsistence could jeopardize the ecosystem. For instance, in some reserves where vegetation is vulnerable, local residents’ daily need for firewood may conflict with preservation. Measures have been taken to institutionalize the regime so that local communities can share the benefits of the preservation of natural resources and to transform the communities into allies of preservation.


Although the Environment and Resources Protection Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, is in charge of legislation and supervision of work in preservation, China lacks an administrative body to oversee the preservation of natural resources. The preservation of resources is, in fact, distributed among several government organs, and each organ can be responsible for both the exploitation and the preservation of resources. For instance, the State Forestry Administration is charged with timber industry oversight, forestation, and preservation of forest resources. Likewise, the Ministry of Water Resources taps the country’s hydropower potential, builds hydropower projects, and preserves water resources. This arrangement may raise the issue of conflicts of interest over the exploitation and conservation of resources. The State Environmental Protection Administration is above such conflicts of interest but is believed to be preoccupied with environmental protection rather than preservation of natural resources.

Similar problems occur in legislation. As Zhou Ke, law professor at Renmin University, has observed, most legislation related to the preservation of natural resources has been centered on the prevention of pollution, whereas legislation related to the preservation of natural resources is absent. Although the two often go hand-in-hand, environmental protection and preservation of natural resources cannot be mutually substituted. Some scholars have proposed that China have a basic law specific to the preservation of natural resources.

Further Reading

Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. (1978). Retrieved June 1, 2008, from http://www.law-lib.com

Information Office of the State Council. (2003). China’s policy on mineral resources. Retrieved June 1, 2008, from http://www.peopledaily.com

Law of environmental protection of the People’s Republic of China. (1999). Retrieved June 1, 2008, from http://www.law-lib.com

Li, Y., & Chen, G. (2007, December 31). Shoulder the historical mission of building ecological civilization. Study Times, p. 1. Retrieved December 24, 2008, from http://www.studytimes.com.cn/WebPage/NewsPaper/20071231_418/popup.htm

Liu, J. (2006). Studies of laws on environmental and resources protection. Beijing: China Water Conservancy & Hydropower Press.

State Environmental Protection Administration & State Planning Commission. (1997). Program for development of China’s nature reserves (1996–2010). Retrieved June 1, 2008, from http://www.sepa.gov.cn

Source: Lei, Xiong. (2009). Natural Resource Preservation. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1566–1570. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Greengrants supports the establishment and development of China’s Mangrove Conservation Network, whose efforts have protected mangrove systems across southern China in coastal communities whose livelihood depends on them. China has yet to enact a general law on the preservation of natural resources, but a 1989 Law of Environmental Protection broadly defines them as water, marine, land, mineral, forestry, grassland, wildlife resources, and natural and cultural heritages.PHOTO BY WEN BO.

Natural Resource Preservation (Zìrán z?yuán de b?ohù ???????)|Zìrán z?yuán de b?ohù ??????? (Natural Resource Preservation)

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