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“China is considering establishing a national park in the Sanjiangyuan (Sources of Three Rivers) Area to protect the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang (Mekong) rivers. A meeting of the Central Leading Group for Reform at the end of 2015 decided to upgrade the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve, established in 2000 in northwest China’s Qinghai Province, into a national park managed by the central government.

“The Sanjiangyuan National Park will cover 123,100 square kilometers. The Yangtze River area of the park alone will span 90,300 square kilometers including 15 villages and more than 20,000 people. Local people will remain in the park, following their traditional way of life, said Lyu Yuan, a spokesman for Yushu city’s environment protection office. The park will also be rich in wildlife, including some endangered species such as Tibetan antelope and snow leopard. The park is mostly a mechanism of zoning and management. There will not be much visible barriers other than a few signs to separate the buffer zones and core conservation areas.

“President Xi Jinping spoke about the park to lawmakers from Qinghai on Thursday. The government plans to hire at least one member of each family as salaried ranger. Some tourism and educational projects will be allowed on the edges of the park. The buffer zone allows only approved scientific research. The core area strictly bans any activities, Lyu said. About 1,000 herders will be hired as rangers, a key measure to improve the environment in the new parks. Each ranger will be paid 1,800 yuan a month to watch out for miners, polluters and hunters; monitor wildlife and take care of injured animals, said Zheng Guiyun, a spokeswoman with the provincial wetland office.”

Source: China plans national park to protect headwaters,  Xinhua   2016-March-11


#1 of 2 blogposts

Why in 2016 did China decide, for the first time, to establish national parks and choose a remote part of Tibet as the location?

China has many nature reserves, officially designated as  Guójiājí Fēngjǐng Míngshèngqū, (国家级风景名胜区) meaning nature reserve or more literally national scenic area, but until 2016 no national parks,  Guójiā Gōngyuán (国家公园 ). Most of China’s area of nature reserves is on the Tibetan Plateau. The distinction between these categories is significant: a national park not only has a higher status but greater protection and greater investment in staff and programs to protect the natural values for which the area is famous. Why is China now committed to upgrading many of its nature reserves into national parks, and why the focus on Tibet?

During the many centuries in which Tibet was to lowland China a far and foreign land, the  source of China’s great rivers remained a welcome mystery, shrouded in mythology linking them to the heavens. Until modern times and the imposition of a territorialised nation-state, there were no expeditions, no mapping parties exhaustively measuring every last tributary to determine which is longest of all and therefore deserves the label of ultimate source. The origins of the Huang He (Yellow River), Chang Jiang (Yangtze) and also the Lancang (Mekong) that exits China via Yunnan, were all mysterious, as one might expect of a culture that did not measure its greatness by territorialised data sets. One need only look at the rich mythology of the Kunlun mountains, queen mother of the West. Likewise the Tian Shan, north of Tibet, the mountains of heaven.


All that changed when China became the People’s Republic, on a modernising mission, determined to stamp its authority on a territorialised nation-state built on the heritage of empire and conquest. In the name of modernity and science, expeditions were sent out into lands that had never been governed in any meaningful way from China, up into the Tibetan Plateau, up to the land surrounded by mountains and glaciers, to locate the one true source of each river, to map its coordinates onto the global grid, thus validating new China’s claim to Tibet and to China’s place in the world system.

Eventually the expeditions sent by the Chinese Academy of Sciences mapped the blank spaces of Tibet and established precise glacial points of origin, all a thousand kilometres or more upriver from the familiar lands of lowland China. Even as the Cultural Revolution raged, China published books on the extreme weather of Tibet[1], and, in 1986, a Cloud Atlas on the strange cloud formations over Tibet, so unfamiliar to China. An English version, with hundreds of colour photos of clouds, was published the same year.[2]

Yet perhaps the spell of mythology lingered, despite the proliferation of scientific jargon, of geomorphology and hydrology, cryospheres and mass balances. New China was keen to establish governmental power over all under heaven, yet the celestial mountains on the northern fringes of Tibet, the Tian Shan, kept their mystique. New China was reassured that its’ rivers actually began in timeless, eternal glaciers, on peaks far from people, pristine and forever frozen. Science had but enhanced the old beliefs.

But everything changes, the more it is observed. As the measurements piled up, over decades, what seemed eternal began to seem variable, fluctuating, even ephemeral. The glaciers were retreating; the endless grassland between the glaciers and the lowlands degrading. Every where the scientists measured, they found problems, earthquakes, massive landslides, watershed degradation, even desertification, climate change, loss of permafrost, dropping lake levels. Could it be that China’s rivers were under threat, right from their newly found sources? The price of numbering is incessant anxiety.

China’s top priority was to establish the felt presence of the state, even in areas of the Tibetan Plateau where no state had ever had an active presence, so much so that anthropologists argue whether the many “stateless societies” of Tibet repudiated state control deliberately, as a societal repudiation of hierarchy.

In the Maoist era the presence of the state was most immediately and evidently the military presence, followed by state campaigns to make the land more productive. Making the rivers rising in Tibet more productive meant damming them, in Qinghai (Amdo in Tibetan), in a series of large dams to generate hydro electricity on the Yellow River, largely sent to heavy industry in Gansu, a hub for Mao’s campaign of military industrialisation.



In recent years, as China’s singular enthusiasm for the ideology of productivism has waned, at least in Tibet, where crops familiar to Chinese farmers cannot be grown, a new ideology has arisen, intended to inscribe state power, for a new purpose. While China has never lost its productivist agenda, and a highly visible program of interventions to maximise production, the new ideology prioritises protection. The new ideology arose from the concern that China’s water supply was threatened by degradation across the pasture lands of Tibet, in the upper reaches of both the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. The government of Qinghai province, with little else that might attract Beijing’s attention, assiduously cultivated the slogan of “China’s Number One Water Tower” to define Qinghai’s importance to downriver China. In remote provinces, local cadres are adept at generating alarm in Beijing, to loosen purse strings and claim extra subsidies. In central Tibet, this is achieved by constantly depicting the Tibetans as a danger to national unity. In Qinghai, where Tibetans are but one of several nationalities, the rivers, both at their glacial sources and as they meander across the grasslands, became Qinghai’s entrée to special funding. Qinghai adopted a key trope of ecologists, which had been taken up by exiled Tibetans, that “the ecology of Tibet is fragile”, and investment in protection of watersheds is essential.

These two ideologies, of productivism and protection, co-exist within both party and state, competing for predominance, and for territory. Until now productivism ( in Chinese发展主义, fazhan zhuyi) has prevailed, for the obvious reason that it generates cash flow and thus rewards for its supporters and official enablers; while taking land out of production, in the name of protection, has no matching capacity for accumulations of wealth. But in a party-state, wealth is not the only driver. Party cadre promotion remains highly centralised, with elaborate rules defining what counts as success in implementing directives from above, the primary qualification for promotion. Now the protectionists have managed to build into the cadre promotion rules new categories of official success that specify territorialisation of protected areas, locked away behind red lines on maps, as new criteria enabling local cadres to gain promotion. There are now incentives for cadres who have posted to remote areas, especially areas where local populations are disempowered and unable to defend their productive lands, to declare protected areas that are permanently locked away from productive use. In some remote but special areas now under direct control from Beijing, local cadres implementing the new central ideology of protection can expect to be rewarded by Beijing, starting with a next posting in an area where wealth accumulation is more readily available.

In a territorialised nation-state with strong central government the tension between contending ideologies, and the powerful ministries in charge of those competing policy agendas, is resolved through staking exclusive claims to territory. Economic ministries have many ways of creating industrial enclaves and free trade zones. Natural resource ministries in charge of protecting water supply or China’s response to climate change, are now empowered, as never before, to declare exclusive Main Function Zoning of areas they seek to control.  In a centralised, top-down system of competing silos the key for ministries responsible for environmental programs is to gain exclusive, demarcated, territorialised control; and to rewrite the cadre promotion rules. This has now been achieved, for implementation in the 13th Five-Year Plan period of 2016 to 2020.

The cost of this internal competition within the party-state apparatus is that customary multiple uses of land are no longer allowed. Land is designated for one specific purpose exclusively, and the metric for defining successful implementation is reduced to a single measure.



The concept of Main Functional Zoning, popularly known as “red lines” has grown greatly in recent years, as a primary mechanism of the turf wars within the party-state for exclusive territory. It was central to the 11th Five-Year Plan of 2006. As a 2012 semi-official report states: “Main Functional Zoning was proposed in the 11th FYP as a tool of planned regional sustainable development designed to zone lands at national and provincial scales: for economic development and urbanization, and for protection of land with high ecological and food production capabilities. Zones are identified based on nine quantitative indicators (for example, cultivable land, ecosystem fragility and importance, economic development, natural disaster risk, etc.) and strategic choice, a qualitative consideration. Western China is predominately zoned as Restricted Development with limited Key Development areas. Nearly 80 per cent of territories in W. China are identified in the Main Functional Zoning Plan of China as either ‘restricted’ or ‘prohibited development’ zones . This acknowledges the fragility and ecosystem values of Western China, with the intention of retaining ecosystem functions during economic and social development processes. Distinct environment and development strategy and policies are needed for W. China. W. China plays a key role for the whole of the nation. This has been recognised in China’s Main Functional Zoning, in particular by designating large areas of restricted development along with a large number of national nature reserves in the region. China’s central government has committed significant financial resources and established nature reserves (1100 in the region, comprising 85% of the national total). Main Functional Zoning identifies restricted development areas and has imposed ecological migration on many small communities. The very large scale of the zones, lack of local government capacity and the limited policy guidance and enforcement over the application of Restricted Development, constrains the practical utility of the current system as a tool for green development.”[3]

Main Functional Zoning has been a key method of China’s central planners since 2006, when the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), formerly the State Planning Commission, introduced it a primary tool for categorising and controlling territory. Nine years later, China’s State Council, in recommitting to Main Functional Zoning, defined it as : “a new initiative involving the status and level of each region’s natural resources and environmental conditions involved in economic and social development of the country’s population distribution and urbanization, land use patterns.”[4] Such sweeping powers of categorisation were soon matched by the assembling, under the auspices of the NDRC, of the entire spectrum of ministries whose work is encroached on by the NDRC’s Main Functional Zoning system. This whole-of-government Leading Group was brought together in 2007, involving the Ministry of Construction, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Land, Minsitry of Water Resources, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Science and Environmental Protection Administration, Chinese Academy of Forestry, Earthquake, Bureau of Meteorology, Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, Bureau Of Oceanography, all instructed to follow the lead of the NDRC.[5]

It may be an oversimplification to suggest that the fundamental categories of Main Functional Zoning are landscapes deemed useful and those declared useless, differentiating territory with factor endowments conducive to wealth creation, from territory of little utilitarian value, areas traditionally depicted in China as “waste land.” Yet such a basic dualism does seem to drive the basic mapping of Main Functional Zones, especially in Western China, where low population concentrations and systemic disempowerment of local communities give central planners scope for broad brush and bold designations of large areas, areas too large to actually be functional. The opportunity, for newly empowered Beijing-based super ministries, notably the central planners of the National Development and Reform Commission, to paint broad swathes of western China in the singular colours of single definitive functions, is tempting. It stakes the claim of the NDRC to supervene, overriding the usual economic development ministries and the state owned enterprises under them to maintain as usual their business of mining, resource extraction, deforestation, dam building etc.

These classifications of so much of Tibet as a Main Functional Zone for carbon capture and watershed rehabilitation puts  climate change and water supply as the key, even the sole, functions of the best pasture lands of Tibet, to the exclusion of all else, including the livelihoods of the pastoralists of these Tibetan heartlands.



Yet these key Main Functions, of climate mitigation and downstream water security, although taken in today’s new normal to be self-evidently good and achievable goals, are actually the responsibilities, in China’s rigid system, of competing bureaucracies held in check by central planners.

“The portfolios of climate change, environment, and energy are split between various Chinese agencies and ministries. The main department in charge of climate related matters is the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). This ‘super-ministry’ sets out China’s main economic directions. The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) covers only environmental issues, and has no mandate to deal with climate-related matters. Overall, the institutional apparatus governing energy, climate, and environmental policies is highly fragmented and compartmentalised. This can make coordination and cooperation difficult.”[6]

The NDRC was, until 1998, the State Planning Commission, creator of the Five-Year Plans, and it remains powerful, with an expanded remit that now includes climate adaptation as well as development, giving it the ability, especially in western China, where popular opinion is suppressed, to declare Main Functional Zoning that prioritises territorialised climate services over economic functions.

Cornell Professor of Government Andrew Mertha in 2008 published a book length analysis of how water policy is made in China, especially policy on hydro power dams. Mertha, who interviewed many senior Chinese water policy officials, argues that China’s system persists in being one of “fragmented authoritarianism.” Recent crackdowns on NGOs and environmental “policy entrepreneurs” are, in Mertha’s words, chilling and disheartening. Throughout, the NDRC has remained central. If anything, the rise of climate change as an external and domestic pressure on China’s leaders, as well as a host of pollution and environmental issues, resulting in the new ideology of protection, has given the NDRC a new goal, in addition to its abiding productivist goal of promoting development and growth. Thus, within the one super-ministry, there are now two contending goals: economic growth and protection of landscapes for climate change mitigation. Under these circumstances Main Functional Zoning is now entrenched as the mechanism for making the zero/sum decision, as to which ideology prevails, in which landscape.

Mertha calls the NDRC the “economic helmsman”, which “has in fact retained its authoritative position within the Chinese government. Indeed, the NDRC, in the parlance of national officials, is often referred to as the ‘small State Council’ (xiao guowuyuan) because of its tremendous power and administrative range. The NDRC enjoys a degree of power that many other commissions can only dream of. There is a more substantive reason for the NDRC’s enormous power –its immensely broad functional jurisdiction and policy area.”[7] The remit of the NDRC has only grown further, now that pollution and climate have become urgent issues both within China, and as external pressure from the global community, resulting in the new ideology of protection, and Main Functional Zoning as the central planners’ method of choosing which ideology applies where.

When reading NDRC reports and plans, the distinction between production and protection is not always clear, as both goals share a language of targets fulfilled and objectives reached, usually expressed numerically. In some ways NDRC’s usual language of productivist achievement has simply been extended to speak of protection as a numerical achievement too. For example, the NDRC report on its 2014 work and plans for 2015 states: “We made enhanced efforts to protect and restore major ecosystems such as wetlands, forests, and areas of biological diversity and richness; and continued to carry out ecological projects to convert marginal farmland back to forest, turn grazing land back into grassland, protect virgin forests, and build key forest shelterbelts. We will issue and implement guidelines on accelerating ecological advancement and on the basis of research, formulate a plan for implementing the structural reform for promoting ecological progress and a system for setting targets for ecological improvement. We will launch a new group of projects to return marginal cultivated land to forests or grasslands and major projects to develop forests for ecological conservation. 1n 2015, we will return an additional 667 thousand hectares of cultivated land to forests or grasslands, and afforest six million hectares of land.”[8] The rhetoric is no different to other sections of the same report, itemising success in production of grain, hydropower, oil or coal. This is the language of mastery.




China’s routinized amnesia and erasure of land uses other than primal ungrazed grassland makes invisible the loss of grazing, rangeland, pastoralist livelihoods and Tibetan food security. Instead, China’s National Development & Reform Commission (NDRC) represents its’ plans as progressive forward momentum towards achieving the new goal of more grassland. Every year the NDRC’s language is upbeat, in legislative voice, highly prescriptive, a measure of success, erasing complexity and the multiple uses of landscapes. One year after the above report, the NDRC in 2016 stated: As much as 54% of livestock and poultry farming is now carried out on a large scale; trials to replace grain crop cultivation with feed crop cultivation and to rotate crops between grain and soybean were launched across the board. The overall level of mechanization in plowing, sowing, and harvesting reached 63%, and advances in agricultural science and technology contributed to 56% of agricultural production. We expanded the scope of a new round of projects to return marginal farmland to forest or grassland and afforested 6.32 million hectares of land, and the national vegetation fractional coverage of grasslands reached 54%.”[9] The increase of intensive agribusiness and the decrease in pastoral grazing land all appear similarly positive, progressive, modern and rational.

From its first adoption in 2006, Main Functional Zoning has been based on remote sensing imagery generated by satellites in orbit above the planet. This may have its uses, in familiar lands where there is value in generalising land use patterns beyond the particulars of local places. But in unfamiliar landscapes, such as Tibet, which few Chinese planners have personal knowledge of, the ability of satellite-based GIS technologies to discern through infrared signals the “carrying capacity” of the land is dubious. Yet that is exactly what NDRC has done, insisting that its calculations of “carrying capacity” are objective, scientific and accurate. Reliance on remote sensing is remote control of Tibet, in an extreme form.




[1] Catalogue of Chinese Publications in Tibetan Studies 1949-1991, Foreign Languages Press, 1994, 304

[2] Atlas of Clouds Over the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau, Science Press & Academic Press, 1986

[3] CCICED Task Force Summary Report: Strategy and Policies on Environment and Development

in Western China, CCICED, 2012

[4] State Council notice on National Main Function Zoning plan, No. scs 200685  6 March 2015


[5] State Council notice on National Main Function Zoning plan 2015

[6] Pierre Nabé, A review of recent developments in China’s climate and environmental policy, China Analysis, Sept 2015

[7] Andrew C Mertha, China’s Water Warriors, Cornell, 2nd ed., 2010, 43-4

[8]National Development & Reform Commission,  Report On The Implementation Of The 2014 Plan For National Economic And Social Development And On The 2015 Draft Plan For National Economic And Social Development, Delivered at the Third Session of the National People’s Congress on March 5, 2015

[9] National Development & Reform Commission, Report On The Implementation Of The 2015 Plan For

National Economic And Social Development And On The 2016 Draft Plan For National Economic

And Social Development, Delivered at the Fourth Session of the Twelfth National People’s Congress on March 5, 2016


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