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China struggles to find economic and ecological balance along Yangtze

Mainland authorities have published a much-delayed state plan for areas along the Yangtze River, reflecting Beijing’s struggle to balance the ecology and economy along the country’s longest river.

The 6,300km Yangtze and the area it passes through has suffered serious environmental degradation in recent years from huge dams disrupting flows, overuse of water resources, species extinction, and the dumping of waste into the waterway.

That’s on top of the many chemical and industrial complexes that line its banks.

How the economic dynamism of the Yangtze River Delta is flowing inland

Despite good intentions, the Development Plan for the Yangtze Economic Belt, published last week, offered few viable action plans to address the daunting problems, analysts said.

For example, the plan the river’s role as a “golden waterway” even though water transport of goods is already an outdated choice for most businesses.

It takes about 10 days for a container to reach Shanghai port from Chongqing by the river, compared with a couple of days by road or rail.

So much so that Chongqing, a key city on the upper reaches of the Yangtze, is trying to develop land routes that connect to European ports and skip the Yangtze.

In another example, the state plan proposes that labour-intensive and processing businesses in rich downstream areas should be relocated to poorer upstream areas – a policy that again raised eyebrows for some researchers.

China rolls out blueprint for Yangtze ‘global city-cluster’

Luo Jianhua, secretary general of the China Environment Chamber of Commerce, warned that pollution risks could move upwards in the Yangtze as well-off cities on the lower reaches closed down polluting factories.

In general, while highlighting the need to protect the environment along the Yangtze, the plan also stresses the need of “urbanisation” by developing small cities and towns surrounding Shanghai, Wuhan and Chongqing, the three major hubs along the river.

First aired by premier Li Keqiang in his government work report in 2014, the Yangtze economic belt concept, a designated area covering 20 per cent of China’s territory and over 40 per cent of its population, was expected to rectify disparate development levels in riverside areas and generate new growth for China’s slowing economy.

No new projects: China’s degraded Yangtze River needs protection, not construction, President Xi Jinping says

Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, urged local government officials to place top priority on the environment. In a meeting with local cadres along the waterway and some ministers in January, Xi told them to “work together for major protection, instead of carrying out major development”.

Until now, the Yangtze economic belt plan has still focused on developing the river as a transport route, with plans to build more ports to spur industrial upgrades and urbanisation. On the environmental side, the plan wants at least 75 per cent of rivers and lakes along the belt to have good water quality by official standards by 2020 and a “thoroughly improved” ecosystem by 2030.

However, it will be an ongoing struggle for China to achieve both its economic and ecological ambitions along the river.

Xiao Jincheng, a researcher affiliated with the National Development and Reform Commission, wrote in an essay in April that, while China may become more prudent in mega-projects like the Three Gorges Dam, the Yangtze would still see more industrial projects on its banks as “industrial development does not necessarily bring excessive pollution”.