My first trip to China was underway and, as the aircraft circled to land at Beijing, I had a second thought (for the third time!) about everything… “Should I be doing this?”
China was a huge mystery to me…yet very appealing. I had never been to China, only to Hong Kong when it was still a colony; only knew about China’s nature conservation through colleagues; and was politically-informed mostly by the western media – which has its own bias, as does all news media, and tends to be superficial and unflattering of China, in general.
However, the challenge was as clear as it was daunting: for wilderness and people to thrive we must commit ourselves to big visions and go where the potential for results is greatest. And what more rewarding sphere of influence than China, where WILD could support, encourage, and assist 20% of the world’s population as they awaken to the awareness of their global footprint and look for proven solutions to become the world’s first “eco-civilization”?
As the plane descended through Beijing’s dense blanket of smog, it was suddenly clear that this is where I needed to be.
There are always issues and misunderstandings when different cultures and politics converge – one need look no further than Europe! China is no different. The politics and cultural mindsets of “the West” and “the Orient” could not be more different, and each must overcome conceptual challenges to find common ground.
Nevertheless, I was soon to learn that WILD’s proven approach of “working together” is something the Chinese understand and like, and something they don’t expect when dealing with Westerners. As the next days on that first trip rolled out – followed by many succeeding trips – my hosts and new colleagues grew in confidence that we were there to assist, collaborate, and bring expertise and resources to add to their own priorities. Their response was correspondingly enthusiastic, helpful, and optimistic.
As the relationship deepened, I discovered that I had much to learn.
Though most contemporary Chinese have little understanding of the wilderness concept, and there is yet no recognition of it as a specific type of protected area, the wilderness concept is rooted deeply in China’s culture and history. Over 3000 years ago, Taoist’s demarcated some natural areas for special reverence, as ‘sacred areas’, some of which still exist today within provincial and “national” parks. But for all practical purposes, the concept and value of wild nature has been mostly left on the roadside as China most recently drove its society forward to economic development, in 35 years moving 300 million rural people upwards into the middle class.
We also learned that China’s people and leaders accept the fact that this drive to economic development had its costs, significant among them being extreme pollution and a disassociation from understanding interdependence with nature and the need for sustainability.
In response to this recognition, President Xi launched a major national policy called ‘Ecocivilization’, involving a serious, long term commitment to creating what China now sees as the 4th era of human development – the progression described as from “Original” Civilization, to Agricultural, to Industrial, to Ecocivilization. The policy rests on the understanding that Ecocivilization must be attained if humankind is to survive and prosper. What’s more, part of this comprehensive policy is the (still clarifying) recognition of “red-line”, sometimes applied to no-development areas. Another element is the creation (now in-process) of a true national park system with its own mandate and agency, building upon the existing provincial parks (interestingly, some of which have always been called “national” parks).
WILD’s Chinese hosts expressed a deep need for better understanding the basics of a respectful relationship between society and wild nature, and our core, volunteer team of advisors and collaborators expanded. We created the WILD China Project, with major partners the Paulson Institute (based in the US and China), and EcoForum Global, China’s only in-country, annual, national environmental conference and networking process.
Our goal is to convene WILD11, the 11th World Wilderness Congress, in China in 2019. This is a complicated process requiring Party approval (not guaranteed!), which is now underway with oversight by one of our very senior collaborators, the Global Times (a division of the People’s Daily, the largest media company in China).
In the meantime, our accomplishments for wild nature continue to emerge in China. For the professionals and scientists, our colleagues at Tsinghua University have committed to an important agenda with us, and have already produced and published both the first-ever inventory of Chinese wilderness (currently being translated into English for the International Journal of Wilderness) and also the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to wilderness. To promote public awareness, the China Institute for Strategy and Management is deeply involved with us and our collaborators to create the first exhibition in China of global wildlife and wilderness art. And much more… such is the way that Chinese do things when they set their minds to it and we all work together.
Nature needs us to work together with China. It is my honor to help facilitate this essential and urgently needed working relationship.
Our deep appreciation goes to many people in this work, just a very few of whom are Zhang Qian, Karl, Magnus, Staffan (Wild Wonders of China), Rose Niu, Alex Zhang, Zhang Xinsheng, WWF-Netherlands, and Li Quan.
President of the WILD Foundation
Vance joined WILD as president in 1984 after 15 years in international business and non-profit management. An innovative leader known for bridging the interests of people and nature, he has lived extensively overseas, worked in over 45 countries, and helped to establish many non-profits. An acknowledged expert in international nature conservation and wilderness protection, he serves on the boards of numerous organizations such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund, Friends of Peace Parks, Fulcrum Publishing, Wilderness Foundation (South Africa), Wilderness Foundation (UK), International Conservation Caucus Foundation, and others. He is also the founder and current co-chairman of the IUCN Wilderness Specialist Group, and has edited and authored many publications.