"All beings flourish when they live in harmony and receive nourishment from nature," Xi said in an address to a key United Nations (UN) conference on biodiversity protection via video link on Oct. 12.
He announced a new set of measures, including China's earmarking of 1.5 billion yuan (232 million U.S. dollars) for a new fund on biodiversity protection, saying that the country encourages global participation in it.
The latest solutions proposed at the conference together with the country's consistent efforts to remedy biodiversity loss reflect Xi's thoughts on the relationship between human and nature, which originate from his personal experiences, develop during his work at various posts, and draw inspiration from the Chinese culture and a realistic view of the world.
VISION OF HARMONY
When he was 13, Xi once enjoyed swimming in the Lijiang River in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region with friends. He was stunned by what nature had to offer.
"The river was blue and clear, glistening in the sun. Fishermen's baskets by the river are full of golden carp. It just felt like a fairy tale," Xi recalled.
With this memory of being mesmerized by nature's beauty during his formative years, Xi has put great emphasis on environmental protection wherever he served, and gradually formed his thoughts on the harmonious co-existence of human and nature.
Back in 1985, while serving as the chief of the Communist Party of China (CPC) committee of Zhengding County, Hebei Province, Xi directed the formulation of the local economic and social development plan, which included this remark: "(We) would rather not be affluent than allow pollutants."
At the time, China's decades-long economic take-off had just started, and sustainable development was yet to become the go-to option.
In 1999, as the acting governor of Fujian Province, Xi paid a visit to the county of Changting, a mountainous area in the west of the province. Upon learning about the severe soil and water loss in the region, he urged local officials to work continuously to deal with the soil erosion in eight to 10 years and bring benefits to the people.
The rehabilitation of the local ecosystem was soon started, with the establishment of an ecological park, where Xi donated 1,000 yuan to plant a camphor tree. Today, Changting is one of the greenest counties in Fujian, with more than 80 percent of the land covered by forests.
In the neighboring province of Zhejiang, cement mills and mines were once the backbone of Yucun Village. While these industries provided lucrative jobs, the thick dust and waste from the plants made the village almost unlivable.
In 2005, serving as chief of the Zhejiang provincial committee of the CPC, Xi visited the village, where he first proposed a guiding theory that endures to this day: "Lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets."
The signature remark is part of Xi's Thought on Ecological Civilization, which was formally established at the country's national conference on ecological protection in May 2018.
The thought is composed of several other key principles, including ensuring harmony between human and nature, regarding a sound ecological environment as the most inclusive benefits to people's well-being, seeing mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, grasslands and deserts as a community of life, protecting the environment through the best institutional arrangements and the strictest rule of law, as well as getting deeply involved in global environmental governance to come up with a worldwide solution for environmental protection and sustainable development.
This has brought about tremendous changes in China.
The ensuing actions taken by the Chinese under the guidance of Xi's thought have strongly refuted those who thought they were hard-wired to see the trade-off between ecology and economy.
After Xi's 2005 visit to the village in Zhejiang, mines and cement plants were shut down. As the local ecology improved, tourism became a major industry, helping locals become even more affluent.
"The formation of Xi's Thought on Ecological Civilization is closely related to the fact that Xi worked at the grassroots level for a long time. He understands the people, feels for their sufferings and speaks their language," said Huang Chengliang, a researcher with a think tank for eco-civilization studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
This year, while making an inspection trip in Guangxi, Xi revisited the Lijiang River and reiterated his belief that "ecological advantages can never be traded for gold."
"Once the environment is destroyed, people will lose the foundation on which they depend for survival and development," he said.
"When we talk about ecology, the most fundamental thing is to pursue harmony between man and nature. Such a philosophy is not only in line with the current trend in the world, but also originates from the cultural tradition of the Chinese nation that has lasted for thousands of years," Xi said.
In classical Chinese philosophy, man is taken as an integral part of nature.
Xi's thought, deeply influenced by traditional Chinese culture and based on China's practices, is "the oriental wisdom" contributed by the Chinese "to the transformation of human society from industrial civilization to ecological civilization," Huang noted.
COMMANDER IN CHIEF
Since Xi took the helm as Chinese president in 2013, China has made unprecedented efforts to fight pollution, protect the ecosystem and combat climate change.
Back in 2013 and 2014, Chinese people came to be concerned about air pollution caused by the fine PM2.5 particles, so did Xi.
"In the past few days, the first thing I did when I woke up in the morning was to check Beijing's air quality, hoping that there was less smog," he told guests attending an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Beijing in 2014.
"We are going all out to clean up pollution with unprecedented efforts," he promised Chinese and foreign guests. "I hope Beijing and the rest of China will always have blue skies, green mountains and clear waters, so that our children can live in a good environment. This is also an important part of the Chinese dream."
With Xi as the top commander, China declared war against pollution. In 2015, a revised environmental protection law came into effect, with provisions hailed as "the strictest" in history. Central authorities began to conduct environmental supervision on a regular basis, imposing fines on polluters and punishing officials with violations. In 2017, the 19th National Congress of the CPC identified pollution control as one of China's "three tough battles," along with poverty relief and risk control. In March 2018, China incorporated ecological civilization into its Constitution for the first time.
Xi's vision for blue skies has gradually come true. In 2020, the percentage of days with good air quality was 87 percent in 337 cities at and above the prefecture level, up by 5.8 percentage points from the 2015 level.
A war often comes with costs. In weighing the pros and cons, Xi again draws wisdom from Chinese culture.
"If you drain the pond to catch all the fish, you will certainly gain a lot today, but there will be no fish for the next year," he once said.
China has imposed a 10-year ban on fishing in the country's longest river, starting from the beginning of this year, with 228,000 fishermen on 110,000 boats relinquishing their nets, an ambitious move to reverse the region's biodiversity loss.
"The cost of the fishing ban in the Yangtze River is not small, but it is worthwhile to protect the ecology of the whole basin," Xi said during a 2020 inspection of Anhui Province, which is located on the middle and lower reaches of the river.
This year, nearly 500 Yangtze finless porpoises have been detected in Poyang Lake, the country's biggest freshwater lake linking with the Yangtze River, as the fishing ban helps the country's longest waterway recover from dwindling aquatic resources and degrading biodiversity.
Across the country, wildlife has made a remarkable comeback, with increased numbers of many rare species catching public attention. These include wild Asian elephants roaming around human settlements in the southwest, Siberian tigers in the northeast, Chinese mountain cats and crested ibis in the northwest, milu deer in the central regions, and Bryde's whales off the coast of Shenzhen in the south.
In May, Xi presided over a study session of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, where a lecture was given by an ecology expert, followed by lively discussions.
"China's modernization has many important characteristics, and one of them is man-nature harmony," Xi said at the meeting.
SPEARHEADING GLOBAL EFFORT
Xi has also led China in making institutional innovations in ecological conservation. By drawing ecological conservation "red lines" nationwide, the country has placed no less than 25 percent of its land area within the boundaries for environmental protection.
"When it comes to environmental protection, one must not cross the line, or one will be punished," Xi said.
Thanks to the "red lines" mechanism, the habitats for wild animals have been expanding and their populations are growing. The number of giant pandas in the wild, for example, has grown from 1,114 to 1,864 over the past four decades.
China's proposal of drawing a "red line" for ecological protection to mitigate and adapt to climate change has been selected by the UN as one of the 15 best nature-based solutions around the globe.
The country contributed about 25 percent of global vegetation growth from 2000 to 2017, the biggest contribution of any country. Up to 10 percent of the new plant varieties identified worldwide in the past decade came from China, according to a recent white paper on biodiversity conservation.
At a time when environmental issues, including climate change and biodiversity loss, are recognized as global challenges, Xi's idea about man-nature harmony has been brought onto the world stage on various occasions.
"At present, there exists an acceleration of the global extinction of species. The loss of biodiversity and the degradation of the ecosystem pose a major risk to human survival and development," Xi said at the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity last September.
"COVID-19 reminds us of the interdependence between man and nature. It falls to all of us to act together and urgently advance protection and development in parallel, so that we can turn Earth into a beautiful homeland for all creatures to live in harmony," he said.
In April, while addressing the Leaders Summit on Climate, Xi made another call for concerted global efforts to "foster a new relationship where man and nature can both prosper and live in harmony."
On combating climate change, at a UN meeting in September, Xi made a widely praised promise that China would not build any new coal-fired power projects abroad. A year earlier, he made the pledge that China would strive to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.
At the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), Xi announced that the country would continue to re-adjust its industrial structure and energy mix and vigorously develop renewable energy, while making faster progress on planning and developing large wind-power and photovoltaic bases in sandy areas, rocky areas and deserts.
"If we humanity do not fail nature, nature will not fail us," Xi said, urging efforts to build a community of all life on Earth.
Themed "Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth," the COP15 in Kunming, Yunnan Province, features heated discussions on how countries can best achieve the goal of living in harmony with nature.
Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, said that the philosophy of ecological civilization is "critical for all countries to achieve the global biodiversity goals."
"The Chinese notion of unity of nature and man, we hope, will be a good example for other countries to follow or to emulate," she said.
"China has included ecological civilization in its national development policy as well as in its constitution," said Dechen Tsering, director of United Nations Environment Programme's Asia and the Pacific Office.
"This sets a good example and could serve as a template for guiding the global strategic direction, where we need an ecological balance with our planet," she said.
Some 300 km northwest of Kunming, tourists often look for the best spot to capture the picturesque view of Erhai Lake. While visiting the lake in 2015, Xi took a photo with local officials.
"Keep this photo and let's see if the water is clearer when I come back in a few years," he said.
From a teenager attracted to the beauty of nature, to a leader in global environmental governance, Xi's belief in the harmonious development of human and nature guides China's path toward a greener future, with growing resonance across the world.
(By Xinhua writers Lu Yun and Cheng Yunjie. Xinhua reporters Wang Wen, Wang Jianhua, Qi Fei, Ji Zhepeng, Pang Mingguang and Ding Yiquan contributed to the story. Video reporters: Hong Yan, Liu Chunhui, Sun Min and Wang Anhaowei; video editor: Yang Zhixiang) ■