How One Man is Changing the Way China Thinks About Wilderness

Dec 14, 2018Featured, Talking WILD

©Staffan Widstrand, Wild Wonders of China

by Vance Martin


WILD was conceived in Africa, around a campfire in the wilderness. We have deep roots in and commitment to Mother Africa, and yet our work for a wilder planet commits us to work in many countries and cultures. Among our collaborative projects with governments, communities and experts around the world to protect and connect at least half of the earths lands and seas, our commitment to China is central to all our efforts, for one very specific reason: Earth needs Chinese conservation leadership.

If we want an authentically sustainable world, we must encourage and support Chinese leadership, for without it there can be no comprehensive solution to the challenges our biosphere confronts.

The facts are clear. With over 20% of the world’s population, China’s current and future ecological footprint is enormous. This impact is compounded by China’s economic ranking as the world’s number two economy. Ecologically, China is a wealth of natural treasures, and is in the top three most biodiverse countries – it is “mega-diverse!”  And while it also confronts some of the world’s biggest environmental challenges, it has also committed to the most ambitious goals and policies for the environment of all the major nations on earth.

Chinese leaders are well-aware that their massive economic growth of the last 40 years came at a high cost to their environmental quality. More significantly, they are now very serious about addressing, and assuming global leadership on, climate change, deploying renewable energy, creating protected areas, prioritizing biodiversity conservation, and ending wildlife trafficking. Their vision is a policy called “Eco-civilization.” But, in true China-style, Eco-civilization is more than a national priority policy, it is “a new era of human society.”


WILD focuses on achieving conservation outcomes by building sustainable relationships between leaders at all scales of decision-making, and strengthening respect for and protection of wild nature. Achieving such results depends on many things, not the least of which are timing and opportunity. Right now, in China, the timing is right and there is a window of opportunity in a globally emerging superpower for an issue of utmost importance to life on earth: protecting what is left of wilderness. That’s why WILD is there, working at the request of Chinese colleagues as always, helping them to remember how the wilderness concept is actually “deep culture” in China (the Taoist sacred protected mountains are +/-2500 years old!).  Applied to today, protecting China’s remaining wilderness is a major part of the answer to combatting global climate change, saving biodiversity, and protecting critically endangered wildlife.  Our goal is to work with our China partners to create-a contemporary wilderness concept “with China characteristics,” and deploy the concept through policy, professional training, and public awareness.   

WILD is fortunate to have close working partnerships and strategic relationships with a wide and diverse range of experts, organizations and agencies in China.  Because it is a challenging concept to understand and promote, the need to protect wilderness also needs special champions. Among a very few such people spread thinly across China — a huge, powerful, and complicated country that is dealing with many other pressing concerns and issues — one very-talented yet modest man is YANG Rui.  We are deeply honored and privileged to know and work closely with Rui and his team at Tsinghua University (Beijing), where he is a Professor and Chairman of the Department of Landscape Architecture – China’s oldest and most distinguished School of Architecture.

China has had many protected areas over the past decades – even areas called “National Parks “– but no actual National Parks system or agency. China is now embarked on creating such a system, with 11 “pilot” parks in-planning and set to become the foundation for a China National Parks System to be formalized in 2019-2020.  Working with Rui, his team, and other colleagues in China, WILD is focused on assuring that “wilderness protected areas” are part of that new National Park System.

Originally from Xi’an in the West of China – a place of great importance in Chinese cultural and historic identity – Rui came to the modern capitol of Beijing in the early 1990’s to study at Tsinghua, where he ultimately earned his PhD. As a multi-talented landscape architect, Rui always had a special personal commitment to protecting wild nature. This commitment is an unusual focus both in his professional field and in a China, which gave scant priority to protecting nature as it economically boomed and politically opened to the world in the last 40 years.  His dissertation (awarded 1995) –” Improving the National Park and Protected Area System of China: Theories and Practice” – received first prize at Tsinghua University for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation. After becoming a Professor at Tsinghua, Rui decided to do post-graduate work at Harvard, a sojourn that allowed him to become steeped in the practical information and deep philosophy of the wilderness concept.

Rui returned to China in 1998, to commit professionally to strengthening nature protection through creating a respected, robust academic and policy framework for protected areas (for which, at that time, there was no coherent national-level system or plan).  There are few if any professionals in China whose resume commands the recognition and respect as does his, with literally dozens of major planning, policy, and research projects to protect wild nature, of which he was Team Leader.  

And yet –I love this — his level of talent and commitment are surpassed only by is modesty. This is as rare as it is enjoyable and special.

As always, formal recognition (and then protection) of wilderness is a step-by -step process. Rui’s wisdom and commitment has combined perfectly with WILD’s global history and 60 years of experience to move this process forward. We have formally joined his work with ours and that of the Wilderness Specialist Group of the IUCN (that WILD founded and co-chairs).  We bring expert assistance and technical capacity (as requested) that gives Rui’s work increased visibility and credibility within China, and a global platform that communicates the growing concern for wilderness within China’s emerging global leadership.

Stop-press!  We are very pleased to announce that in November, 2018, Tsinghua University launched the Institute for National Parks, with YANG Rui as its first President. In his inaugural address to formally launch the Institute, Rui emphasized “six suggestions” for the highest quality national parks.  Of the six, the first three specifically cited wilderness has the core quality, attributes, and benefits of the best national parks system.


We can do this! Thank you for believing in and supporting this work!


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