China National Parks for People

China is the world’s second largest economy and projects to be the biggest by 2030 if current economic growth trends continue.

The challenge – balancing economic growth and environmental impact

Economic growth in China has relied on the consumption of natural resources. While growth has brought some real improvements in social outcomes, it has also resulted in ecosystem fragmentation and degradation as well as biodiversity loss at scale across China. Pollution, climate change, urbanization and the overconsumption by a growing middle class add to the already intense conflict between conservation and development in China.

But now access to clean water, safe food, fresh air and sunshine — basic human needs — is becoming a challenge for the citizens of China’s megacities to obtain. In response to this increasingly politicized issue, the new central government leadership has introduced the “Beautiful China” and “Ecological Civilization” concepts, strengthening that to realize a true “Beautiful China” the country must accelerate the institutionalizing of “Ecological Civilization” involving legislation and policy making on proper land and natural resource use, ecosystem and environment protection and sustainable development. These have given rise to new environmental protection practices including drawing “ecological red lines” that guides protection, management and development of a certain area based on its ecological sensitivity and importance to ecological security, and formulating a natural capital balance sheet (Green GDP) in the next five to ten years.

In November 2013, the Chinese government announced its intention to explore a new national park system to safeguard China’s storehouses of natural capital and to improve the current protected area management systems which lack efficiency both in conservation and community development. The premise is that environmental quality trends indicate that the benefits that people receive from nature – or ecosystem services – are not well recognised in the existing management of biodiversity, land, air and water in China’s nature reserve system. The aim is to develop this new category of national parks with a clear understanding and measurement of how specific populations will benefit directly and indirectly.

The national park concept will appear in China’s 13th five-year plan, to be adopted in 2016. The current and biggest challenge for implementation is a technical one: How can we identify the boundary of a national park and to divide it appropriately to functional zones according to different management targets? This is a critical problem to solve if the proposed national parks are to provide benefits from nature to people, and in turn receive appropriate stewardship.

The response – research to identify places to benefit to biodiversity, ecosystem functioning and socio-economic development

This project aims to develop a reliable method for drawing suitable boundary lines according to benefit to biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, as well as socio-economic development, in the context of a complicated land tenure system in China. This method will be used to identify potential locations for the new national parks across China. The proposed demarcation and zonation guide for China National Parks has been initiated through a partnership with the Development and Research Center of State Council (DRC) of the government of China, WWF China and the Beijing Normal University. We aim to support integrated economic, social and environmental decision-making around the situation and management of national parks in China and share methodological and policy lessons globally. We set three objectives:

Objective 1: to set up a boundary demarcation and functional zoning theoretical framework which could be turned to technical guidance in China national park construction

Objective 2: to design a valuation index system which could help to evaluate pilot national parks and could be used in future national park selection

Objective 3: to engage with local stakeholders at pilot national parks to develop an ecosystem compensation methods for land use change within the national park boundary

The engagement – working with partners to identify national parks

Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellow, Dr. Siyuan He, along with DRC research staff, colleagues at the Beijing Normal University and WWF conservation practitioners are leading the basic research to produce an accepted method for demarcation and zoning of national parks for people in China. Together, we are:

  • Creating a valuation index — which will form part of the national park selection criteria — will be jointly developed by WWF China and selected partners in the Chinese context.
  • Testing and demonstrating in up to nine pilot National Parks, Places with exceptionally valuable ecosystems and key species are covered in the current national conservation system but also face strong pressures from development. The initial three pilot locations are:
    1. The Yangtze River Basin, on the upstream alpine meadow, where fragility of ecosystem and local community’s high dependence on natural resources make it a representative of western China. The basin itself has some of the highest levels of biodiversity and with three of the WWF International’s flagship species, and the upstream basin is part of the Asian water tower on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.
    2. The Amur-Heilong River Basin where WWF China’s research on Integrated River Basin Management will provide valuable information on natural resource management and conservation.
    3. The Southeast Hills in eastern China where fragmentation of land use and diversity in conservation targets suits the challenge.
    4. Synthesising factors in demarcation and zonation to understand how to transfer the approach with suitable adaptation for new locations in China and elsewhere.

Research outputs – research to assess ecosystem services

The project partners will produce a series of publications, policy summaries and information products to support national park planning in China, including:


  • Technical guidelines for boundary demarcation and functional zonation of a national park to develop national capacity on valuation of ecosystem services.
  • A framework for beneficiaries of ecosystem services mapping valuation relevant for the local context.
  • At least three valuation case studies within and beyond current pilot National Parks.
  • GIS products supporting land use planners in the Chinese government to identify potential locations for national parks in China.
  • Peer-reviewed publications.


The impact – providing information to inform policy-making

Our research in China National Parks for People is providing policy guidance on drawing the boundaries of the new national park system, including ‘ecological red-lines’ , supporting the implementation of the 13th National Five-Year Plan by demonstrating the economic and social value of national parks on development and well-being.

Project partners

WWF China; Development, Research Center of State Council (DRC); Natural Capital Project.

Project Leadership

Zhiyong Fan (WWF China); Lei Wang (WWF China); Yang Su (DRC State Council); Hongguang Cheng (Beijing Normal University); Siyuan He (Luc Hoffmann Institute Research Fellow); Louise Gallagher (Luc Hoffmann Institute); Emily McKenzie (Natural Capital Project).

Main image: © Yifei ZHANG / WWF

Chris JohnsonChina National Parks for People