The Chinese landscape as ecological infrastructure

Emily Yeh

Illegally built hotel, now in the newly declared National Panda Park (Yeh 2019)

I originally embarked on a project to consider the politics of highly visible transport infrastructure projects – highways, rail lines, new airports – that are currently being constructed in Tibetan areas of China, specifically in western Sichuan.  However, the contingencies of field research pushed me in an entirely different direction: to several cases where Xi Jinping’s new program for ecological civilization has intersected with post-Wenchuan earthquake reconstruction to become struggles over the presence of tourist/scenic area infrastructure.

As the first China Made workshop made clear, the dominant focus on the sheer speed, scale, and visibility of new infrastructure construction in China obscures temporalities of breakdown, decay, and ruination.  This ruination is not just a matter of slow decay due to the erosion of time in the absence of repair. Rather, new zones, roads, housing developments, cities, airports and more are predicated upon the transformation, and frequently, the active demolition, removal, and erasure of previous infrastructures.  Central level environmental inspections, begun in 2015 in association with the strategy of achieving “ecological civilization,” have resulted in the complete dismantling of infrastructure ranging from housing to chemical industrial parks to tourist infrastructure.  In this project I am tracing struggles over tourist infrastructure in two scenic areas that were developed as part of post-Wenchuan earthquake livelihood recovery strategies, but that have now been expropriated and dismantled in the name of ecological civilization.

Related to this, the broad push for ecological civilization is also associated with the drawing of ecological red lines, which also grow out of a key macro-level policy of functional zoning of the entire national landscape, which is supposed to “optimize the spatial pattern of regional economic development and environmental conservation.” The State Council and the Central Committee have declared that the boundaries of all ecological redlines must be completed by 2020, in order to ensure “an ecological area needed to guarantee and maintain ecological safety and functionality and biological diversity for national security.”

In his study of the Panama Canal watershed, Ashley Carse suggests that nature itself is infrastructuralized when it is conceptualized as, organized, and managed to deliver “ecosystem services” for people.  This view of nature or the biophysical landscape as providing services that underlie the functioning of society has come into prominence with the promotion of ideas about natural capital.  Landscape architects have also argued that reconceptualizing the biophysical landscape as a form of infrastructure that has been historically suppressed will improve future design for urban ecologies.  However, as Carse points out, when nature is turned into infrastructure, that is, a substrate for the provision of certain kinds of flows and services (e.g. water or nutrient flows), certain kinds of services are necessarily privileged over others. This insight, in turn, opens up questions of distributional conflicts and justice.   In my work, I am asking how these insights might be productive for an understanding of China’s current plans for national-level functional zoning and ecological red lines.

References

Belanger, Pierre. 2009. “Landscape as infrastructure.” Landscape Journal 28(1): 79-95.

Bo, Jiang, Yang Bai, Christina Wong, Xibao Xu, and Juha Alatalo. 2019. “China’s ecological civilization program – Implementing ecological redline policy.” Land        Use Policy 81: 111-114.        

Carse, Ashley. 2012. “Nature as infrastructure: Making and managing the Panama Canal watershed.” Social Studies of Science 42(4): 539-563.

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