China's Progress on Sustainable Development and Expectations of Rio+20

Remarks by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Secretary-General of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20)

Minster Du Ying,
Assistant Minister Ma Zhaoxu,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour and pleasure to participate in this event.

I have been following sustainable development in China for quite some time.

First, as a Chinese national, I obviously care about what happens in China.  This is the land where I grew up, where I studied, worked, and where my family is.

China is my home.

My emotions – my joys, tears, worries, laughs – they are all in synch with events in China.

But since China is the world’s second largest economy, I am also very interested in China both in my capacity as UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and as Conference Secretary-General for Rio+20.

What happens in China has impact well beyond China. The successes and lessons learned from China can be applied to other countries.

So, let me take advantage of this occasion and share with you a few personal observations on China’s sustainable development.

First, let me address the challenges facing China, which can be summarized as “Three Mountains”.

Unlike the growth trajectory of industrialized countries, China, as a developing country, has had to remove three mountains in its path to sustainable development.

Let me explain.

First, when China began economic reform, it faced weak infrastructure, inadequate financing and outdated technologies. Several hundreds of millions of people lived in abject poverty.

Second, China faced serious natural resource constraints. While China’s population accounted for some 20 percent of the world’s population, China has less than 10 percent of the world’s arable land. 

China’s per capita water resource is only 28 percent of the world’s per capita average.

Where China is well endowed with some natural resources, these resources are often located far from economic centers, contributing to transportation costs and other costs.

I am sure our Chinese speakers can provide more detailed statistics on this.

As if these two mountains were not big enough, China, like other developing countries, has had to pursue economic growth, social development, and environmental protection simultaneously, within a period of decades. Developed countries, on the other hand, were able to do this sequentially, over the span of hundreds of years.

Confronted with these three “mountains”, the Chinese government had to implement a sustainable development strategy that is adapted to Chinese conditions.

This experimental approach can be vividly captured by the phrase “Crossing the river by feeling the stones”.

So what did China do and how did China do it- lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty while becoming the second largest economy of the world, within less than 3 decades?

Once again, I will leave the detailed explanation to experts.

But I will lay out three success stories for you.

First: high-level political commitment.

The top leadership of the Chinese government committed to reforming the Chinese economy and they have never wavered in this commitment.

Since the start of Chinese economic reform, the world has witnessed several recessions, and financial and economic crises.

Yet despite these external difficulties, Chinese leaders have steadfastly pursued the national policy of economic reform. 

So, the success story is: where there is political commitment, there is progress.

Second: giving priority to people’s livelihoods.

Improving people’s lives and livelihoods has been a central policy objective since the start of economic reform.

How did the Chinese government go about this?

By creating jobs, providing social services, including mandatory secondary education and health care, and by investing in human resources.

And thus, the living standards of ordinary people, including in rural areas, has dramatically improved.

So, lesson number 2 is putting people first.

Third: pursuing a green economy, sometimes described in China as a circular economy or ecological civilization. 

During the last decade in particular, the Government has made substantial investments in increasing resource efficiency… energy and water saving… emissions reductions… and renewable energy.

The objective? To achieve an economy characterized by lower input, higher output, lower emissions and higher productivity.

The result? The amount of industrial waste water, industrial sulfur dioxide, and CO2 emissions per one unit of GDP has dropped substantially. There have also been significant declines in energy consumption per unit of GDP.

China has made remarkable progress on other fronts, including in afforestation and reforestation, creating newly forested areas of more than 620 thousand square kilometers.

So, lesson number 3 is pursue a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication – in a strategic approach adapted to national circumstances.

These three lessons from China are particularly relevant to the objective and themes of Rio+20.

In some ways, China still has a long-term battle ahead. 

There are still over one hundred million people who live below the updated national poverty line. 

There is also much work to be done in regards to reducing emissions and strengthening environmental protection.

But I am optimistic.

Looking ahead, one can confidently hope China can do more and achieve more, especially through various forms of international cooperation, technology transfer and dissemination, and capacity building.

With high-level political commitment and a strategy anchored on implementation, I have no doubt that China, my homeland, will reach a future we all want… a future of sustainable development across China that endures from generation to generation.

On that optimistic note and on behalf of the United Nations, I welcome all guests and participants to this event.

I look forward to a dynamic and interactive discussion.  Thank you.