Ten years after China announced it would become an ecological civilisation, it will complete the first ever nationwide evaluation of its mission to rescue the environment this August.

eco-civ: eight years from tifa to policy

At the 17th CCP National Congress in 2007, then President Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 announced that China would become an ‘ecological civilisation’ (eco-civ). The expression was written into the Party’s constitution at the 18th Party Congress five years later as an ‘addition and improvement’ to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. It also became part of the ‘five-in-one’ 五位一体 development strategy—which grew from the Deng-era cultural and economic ‘two-in-one’ to include political, social and environmental aspects. In April 2015 the CCP Central Committee and State Council issued guidance on speeding up implementation of eco-civ, followed quickly by a solid policy document in September (in English here).

With the release of this document, a full eight years after the slogan was introduced into Party patois, ‘eco-civilisation’ became the key catchcry for China’s efforts to remediate the environment. The document stipulates eight ‘systems’ to undergo reform (see below). The last of these covers evaluation and accountability, and prescribes the demotion or even expulsion of officials who fail to meet eco-civ targets; this notably extends even after promotion, transfer or retirement.

eight eco-civ systems

Efforts across these areas have stepped up since the policy was released in 2015.

crossing the river by feeling the stones

Like many of China’s policies, eco-civ started in pilots. In 2014, Fujian province announced one, with Guizhou following suit shortly after. This followed on from a much earlier declaration in 2002 by then Fujian governor, Xi Jinping 习近平, that Fujian would become an ‘ecological province’. By 2015, the state announced new experiment zones, bringing the total to over 100 nationally. Some might focus on monitoring and evaluation, others on ecological compensation. Aside from these pilots, eco-civ is invoked more broadly in a range of contexts. Some provinces have their own eco-civ strategy, it is cited in poverty alleviation and wildlife protection, and prominent academics even put it forward as an alternative to western modernisation and its ills. It is also used in relation to ocean policy in areas such as tourism and resource extraction. State Oceanic Administration issued a plan for ‘marine ecological civilisation’, a document that lays out an overarching strategy to reduce marine pollution—its measures line up with the main eco-civ policy, such as zoning, resource allocation and management, and assessment and accountability. Belt and Road is set to go green with an environmental protection plan, setting a deadline of 2025 to follow the principles of eco-civ and green development. Eco-civ inspires a series of further policies in formulation, such as one on eco-friendly lifestyles which aims to green the gamut, from industry to packaging, and from transportation to values. Provisions of the eco-civ policy that call for popularising eco-culture and advocating green life-styles, despite lacking serious teeth, present a unique environmental governance approach. While widely used as an environmental catchcry, eco-civ now has concrete, rigorous evaluation and assessment measures. These were issued late 2016, and the nationwide evaluations are due in by end August.

a national system for evaluation and assessment

The 2015 policy pledged that practicable and visually representable indicators for assessing green development would be set up to measure progress in eco-civ. A formal outline was issued on 22 December 2016, making Party and government officials additionally responsible for meeting eco-civ goals.


The assessment system is the more rigorous of the two. Penalties and rewards are provided for officials designated responsible for each region’s eco-civ goals. Political careers will depend on a keeping a clean sheet on these criteria. Self-assessments by provinces, autonomous regions and province-level municipalities’ Party committees and local governments are to be reconciled with central agency-level assessments. The assessment is led by National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Organisation Department of the CCP, in conjunction with an inter-ministerial group comprising Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Land and Resources, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Agriculture, National Bureau of Statistics, State Forestry Administration and State Oceanic Administration.

Assessments take place every five years and cover every region (with results adjusted for the specific state of development of the region in question). They are based on targets stipulated in the 5-year plan for national economic and social development. Assessments are to be conducted in the year following each five-year plan, and finished by that September (the first is due 2021).

The results are reported to CCP Central Committee and State Council, which examine and approve them, before making them public. Regions assessed as ‘outstanding’ are publicly commended; those responsible in poor performing regions are named and shamed, and ordered to undergo rectification. Tampering with assessment results will invoke still more serious, possibly criminal, sanctions.


Evaluation uses a green development index system devised jointly by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Environmental Protection, accounting for performance across seven areas. Each area is divided into items, with each given a maximum score of either 0.92, 1.83, or 2.75 (depending on the item) by the department in charge of that area. For example, item 33 under ‘environmental protection’ is ‘forest coverage’, with a maximum score of 2.75 points; the data is provided by the State Forestry Administration. Or item 8 in the ‘resource use’ section is ‘agricultural irrigation water-use efficiency index’, scored out of 1.83, is based on data provided by the Ministry of Water Resources. Adding up the scores for each item across all categories gives a percentage score. Evaluations take place every year, and in every region.

seven evaluation categories and their weighting

  • resource use (29.3 percent)
  • environmental governance (16.5 percent)
  • environmental quality (19.3 percent)
  • environmental protection (16.5 percent)
  • quality of growth (9.2 percent)
  • green living (9.2 percent)
  • level of public satisfaction (no score given as it is based on a separate national survey organised by the NBS)

under the spotlight

Eco-civ failed to make waves when initially introduced. But the state persisted with related policies, plans, regulations and mandates, slowly fleshing it out and giving it teeth. This occurred as public awareness of environmental degradation increased, threatening social stability. The first round of eco-civ evaluations are due by end August, with the results to be made public. This will signal the concept’s transformation from environmental catchphrase to political reality—provided all is transacted transparently. A key part of an accountability system for environmental governance, the new systems mark a major step in China’s attempt to tackle its environmental challenges. In addition, they bolster its claim to offer concern for the environment as a key global public good.


Wen Tiejun 温铁军 | Renmin University Institute of Advanced Studies for Sustainability dean

A strong critic of China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation, Wen was fired from the Ministry of Agriculture in the 1990s for outspokenness. He survived in lowly editing posts before rising again to direct a series of institutes on the rural economy and sustainable development at Renmin University. Now a leading figure in ‘three rurals’ policy and top advisor to Ministry of Commerce on international trade, Wen also writes on ecological civilisation. He argues that it offers an alternative to the Western colonial, exploitative model that transferred the environmental costs of their development to the global south. He received the 6th ‘John Cobb Common Good Award’ in recognition of his passion for the welfare of China’s rural population, and his remarkable achievements regarding sustainability in China.

Liu Zongchao 刘宗超 | Beijing Academy of Eco-Civilisation director

One of the founding theorists on ecological civilisation, Liu is also a teacher, sustainability advocate and prolific writer. He is one of the original eco-civ researchers, and was the first to publish a book in Chinese on the subject in 1997. In the mid-90s, he and several other academics received official approval from the National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Sciences to conduct a high-profile research project on eco-civ in collaboration with government think-tanks. He conducts courses for Party cadres on the topic.

He Huili 何慧丽 | China Agricultural University College of Humanities and Development Studies deputy dean

Receiving a top mark on the gaokao, He Huili could have studied at whichever university she wanted, but chose Wuhan University and philosophy. Growing up in rural Henan, she later returned to her roots to set up a school called Hong Nong Academy 弘农书院 in her home village. Her recent work centres on the ‘three rural’ issues and rural reconstruction. Advocating a return to traditional values, He’s take on eco-civ follows a grassroots approach, using traditional Chinese culture and philosophy to teach people about environmental values. Her work in the village also involves teaching people about organic and environmentally friendly agricultural practices, and she has helped farmers set up co-ops to make them more competitive in the national market.


end aug 2017: completion deadline for the first ever eco-civ evaluations, conducted nationwide

2 dec 2016: CCP Central Committee and State Council’s ‘Methods to evaluate and assess ecological civilisation goals’ come into force People’s Daily

16 nov 2015: Ministry of Environmental Protection releases ‘Opinions on quickly implementing green lifestyles’

21 sep 2015: CCP Central Committee and State Council release ‘Overall reform plan for promoting ecological civilisation’

25 apr 2015: CCP Central Committee and State Council release ‘Opinions on quickly becoming an ecological civilisation’

1 jan 2015: China’s new Environmental Protection Law, introduced 24 april 2014, comes into effect

13 dec 2013: NDRC releases its plan for eco-civ pilot areas gov.cn

12 nov 2013: details of a four-step strategy for becoming an ecological civilisation are released in the Communiqué of the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CCP Central Committee

8 nov 2012: the concept is further fleshed out in the 18th CCP National Congress work report people.cn

nov 2012: ‘becoming an ecological civilisation’ is written into the Party constitution as being integral to the system of Socialism with Chinese characteristics

15 oct 2007: Hu Jintao announces in 17th CCP National Congress work report that China will become an ecological civilisation people.cn

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