National park legislation highlights benefits of environmental protection

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-09-23

The Old Summer Palace, a historic national park in Beijing, China. The national park is renowned for its stunning gardens and rich cultural heritage. Photo: Weng Rong/CSST

On August 15, 2023, China celebrated its first Ecological Environment Day. During the Second National Park Forum held on August 19, the first batch of national park master plans for overall development was officially released, outlining the development trajectory from 2023 to 2030 and encompassing a total planned area of over 230,000 square kilometers. The master plan for the first batch of national parks assumes a critical role as a guiding and pivotal document, carrying immense significance for the preservation and establishment of national parks. As various aspects of China’s national park-related work progress, questions regarding the purpose of national park conservation and construction, as well as the legislative principles that should be upheld, have become subjects of great interest in the field of nature conservation. Essentially, it entails a dialectical relationship between protection and development. Understanding this issue will determine the management objectives and goals of the national park model, as well as set the tone for future national park legislation.

Reasons for protection

From a philosophical perspective, every entity possesses two dimensions of purpose. The first is the inherent purpose, which transcends subject-object relationships, resides within the essence of the entity itself, and carries a universal existential significance. The second is the utilitarian purpose, which relates to the functional and practical value within the subject-object framework.

In many cases, contemporary individuals tend to perceive the purpose of nature, ecosystems, national parks, and nature reserves primarily from a utilitarian perspective that revolves around human-centric functionality and services. While this perspective is undoubtedly necessary, it may not be sufficiently comprehensive, and may even overlook the key point. We should comprehend the inherent significance of the existence of national parks from their inherent purpose, where the intrinsic purpose of national parks and nature reserves is the primary legal interest of nature conservation.

The inherent purpose of the protection and establishment of national parks is the authenticity and integrity inherent to national parks and nature reserves, manifested in the ecological entities, structures, and functions, as well as the cultural and aesthetic significance derived from the harmonization of humans and nature. This intrinsic significance transcends societal boundaries and divisions, holding important value for all of humanity.

UNESCO has declared the inherent significance of both natural and cultural heritage in the “World Heritage Convention,” providing relatively objective criteria and standards for their assessment. The utilitarian purpose, or the utilitarian value within the subject-object framework, of national parks is defined from the perspectives of “effects” and “benefits.” It reflects the utilitarian relationship and functional positioning between the subject (management) and the object (the natural environment) of national parks. In a normative sense, the utilitarian purpose of national parks primarily focuses on realizing the practical effects or benefits of the planned national park objects, such as spatial areas and regions, on human beings and communities. This entails evaluating the actual impacts and benefits of these natural entities on people and society.

Considering the above-mentioned aspects, it is evident that the objectives of national park conservation and development are multifaceted. First, they aim to preserve the authenticity of the ecological environment and safeguard the ecological security of the country. Nature reserves possess mature and intact ecosystems and ecological processes, rich biodiversity, balanced structures, and high ecosystem stability. They constitute the most fundamental element and material basis for national ecological security. They serve as the “baseline” resources for the sustainable utilization and protection of crucial natural ecosystems and typical types. Nature reserves are also important sources of freshwater and clean water for humanity. In regions where development is prohibited, such as in western China, they play an important supplementary and balancing role in areas with urban systems lacking biological functions and agricultural ecosystems primarily focused on single-crop biomass production.

Second, they aim to preserve important genetic material and fulfill the role of a genetic repository, thereby maintaining biodiversity. Every organism in nature has survived through long geological and historical processes. Even if certain species and life forms may not have immediate utility for the present generation, it does not mean they lack value. Allowing arbitrary development, selective utilization, or the extinction of species will result in a massive loss of biodiversity and put ecosystems at high risk. Therefore, nature reserves play a crucial role in preserving natural resources, maintaining biodiversity, providing natural habitats for wildlife, and ensuring the diversity and richness of the genetic repository for species.

Third, they aim to promote scientific research and environmental education for the nation. Nature serves as the wellspring of human knowledge. National parks are established to preserve pristine and undisturbed natural resources. Their topography, geology, climate, soil, rivers, valleys, hills, as well as the wildlife and plant species living within them are subject to minimal human interference and alteration. Nature reserves provide the public with places to experience and connect with the natural world. They serve as natural classrooms and laboratories for environmental education and scientific research.

Fourth, they provide recreational opportunities for the nation. Nature can nurture human character and inspire creativity. With rapid economic and social development in our country, the living standards of urban and rural residents have significantly improved, income has increased substantially, and some families have achieved affluence. As a result, people’s expectations for a higher quality of life and better environmental conditions have risen as well. Embracing leisure activities, engaging in recreational pursuits, and reconnecting with nature have become integral aspects of our national way of life. Urban residents, especially, have a pressing need for outdoor recreation. Engaging in activities such as visiting natural areas and experiencing the conservation values of national parks firsthand can greatly contribute to their physical and mental well-being. This immersive experience serves as a valuable means of alleviating the stress associated with the demands of daily life.

Fifth, they promote regional employment, welfare, and economic prosperity. While meeting the national demand for recreation, natural reserves can also serve as a source of economic activity through appropriate and moderate development and utilization. They can stimulate the tourism industry, increase government revenue, and attract foreign tourists, thereby boosting foreign exchange income, and providing direct or indirect employment opportunities for the region. This, in turn, drives the development of related industries such as food, catering, transportation, and tourism, stimulates consumption, boosts domestic demand, and promotes regional economic growth.

Legal governance

In terms of the legal construction of China’s national park and nature reserve system in the new era, it is crucial to first transform the legal objectives and functions while adhering to the following legislative principles.

First, we need to prioritize the “inherent purpose” of national parks and nature reserves over the “utilitarian purpose,” and establish the fundamental principle of “protection first” in a legal value setting. As a new type of protected area, national parks share the same conservation philosophy as nature reserves, with the primary conservation objective being the preservation of natural authenticity. Functional values such as cultural, aesthetic, and recreational economic values come after this primary objective. It is important to note that national parks and nature reserves do not exclude appropriate utilization and development activities that do not conflict with the inherent purpose of protection. Management should be guided by the primary conservation and management goals rather than adopting an all-encompassing prohibition approach.

Second, we must balance the dual objectives of “preserving natural authenticity” and “public recreation use,” with a principle that prioritizes protection while also accommodating recreational use. National parks are established for the benefit of the nation and its people, and the public has the right to enter, reasonably utilize, and appreciate and enjoy national parks. However, when conflicts arise between the preservation of natural authenticity and recreational use, the former should be given greater weight.

In this regard, it is worth drawing inspiration from the provisions of the UK’s “Environmental Law Act.” It states that when there is an irreconcilable conflict between the two legislative purposes of national parks, namely “the conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage of (national parks)” and “the provision of opportunities for the public to understand and enjoy (national parks) these special qualities,” the legislation gives higher priority to the purpose of preserving the natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage of national parks. Similar provisions can be found in the laws of countries like Australia and New Zealand.

Last, it is important to clarify the statutory responsibilities of national park managers, with the principle of promoting regional economic and social sustainability. From a foreign legislative perspective, “promoting economic development” is not the fundamental purpose of establishing national parks, and countries like the UK and Germany even legislate against it. However, unlike the broader concept of “promoting economic development,” promoting sustainable regional economic and social development is worth advocating.

For example, the UK’s “Environmental Law Act” assigns the following statutory responsibilities to national park authorities: to collaborate closely with local agencies responsible for development to promote economic prosperity and social welfare in the communities within national parks. This provision can serve as a valuable reference for China’s national park development. While national parks cannot make economic prosperity and social welfare a fundamental management goal, they can introduce it as an important national and societal responsibility. By collaborating with local agencies responsible for economic development, national parks can contribute to the sustainable development of the regional economy and society in the areas where they are located.


Du Qun is a Professor from the Law School of Beihang University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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