China under President Xi Jinping is ostensibly dedicated to creating an “ecological civilisation.” According to Xi, that civilisation is supposed to include healthy forests. 

In October, he told an international summit on biodiversity that forests should be conserved because “We need to have deep reverence for nature, respect nature, follow nature’s laws and protect nature, so as to build a homeland of harmonious coexistence between man and nature.”

Banyan trees in a park in Guangzhou. Photo: Mathias Apitz (München), via Flickr.

In November, China was among 100 countries promising to end deforestation by 2030 as part of efforts to tackle climate change, and it pledged to collaborate with the United States to put a stop to illegal deforestation globally. 

Last December, after thousands of banyan trees were cut down in Guangzhou, 10 officials were disciplined – half of them, including a vice-mayor, were sacked – reportedly with the direct approval of Xi. 

These developments might be interpreted as proof of China’s dedication to protecting trees. Is there substance to such an interpretation, or is the declared appreciation for forests merely a mirage?

If history is any guide, reality hews to the latter. That’s because China has a very long record of razing forests to feed its development. Alongside its economic rise in recent decades, it has taken on an outsize and accelerating role in global deforestation.

An aerial view of land cleared as a staging area for the construction of a China-backed hydroelectric dam in the Batang Toru rainforest, the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, on August 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP).

By the 13th century, early industrialisation in China produced severe shortages of wood, then the main source of energy. Most of China’s original forests, which once covered about three-quarters of its territory, were gone by about 1800, and more than 20 million hectares of what little remained were cleared between the creation of the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the country’s economic opening to the world three decades later.

Logging within China increased by a quarter between 1978 and 1986, and by about 1990 only 5 per cent of the country’s original forests remained, mostly in remote or inaccessible locations.

During the 1980s and 1990s, domestic timber production shot up in China, and by the mid-1990s many provinces were completely denuded of forests, while others experienced unsustainable felling. In the late 1990s, the Chinese government banned logging, in large part due to devastating floods that were exacerbated by widespread deforestation. 

China has for some time been planting trees in an attempt to limit desertification and the resulting sandstorms that blight Beijing every spring. In an apparent effort to compensate for past forest destruction and to absorb some of the country’s climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions, China has a plan to plant 36,000 square kilometres of trees each year between 2021 and 2025. According to officials, this will raise China’s forest coverage to nearly a quarter of its territory.

While China may have finally recognised the value of preserving its own trees – except here in Hong Kong, where official sentiment seems to be the opposite – its behaviours are driving deforestation overseas.

China’s Mangshan National Forest Park. Photo: cattan2011, via Flickr.

Without timber of its own, China has sought it abroad. Forests around the world are being razed to feed the ever-increasing appetite of China’s factories and consumers. China is effectively importing deforestation, both directly through the import of raw logs and wood products – much of them obtained illegally – and indirectly through the import of agricultural commodities and minerals that are produced after widespread forest destruction. Consequently, China’s global “deforestation footprint” has increased by an order of magnitude over the last two decades.

Half of all timber shipped around the world goes to China, making it “a predator on the world’s forests.” China is the largest importer of tropical deforestation – more than imports of the European Union and the United States put together – as well as the greenhouse gas emissions that result from it.

It is also the largest consumer and the largest importer of illegal timber, accounting for about a quarter of the world’s illicit trade.

Following the domestic ban on logging, China’s loggers first turned their chainsaws on nearby countries, notably Myanmar, Indonesia, and Russia, and very quickly China became the second largest importer of timber. Myanmar’s rate of deforestation is among the highest in the world, mostly as a consequence of demand from China, with nearly all of the exports to China being illegal.

Stacks of timber in Russia’s Khimki Forest. Photo: Daniel Beilinson, via Flickr.

Russia has become the source of about one-third of China’s timber imports, with Chinese corporations investing billions of US dollars in the forestry industry there. Chinese timber extraction from Siberia, much of it illicit, has resulted in environmental damage there and rising resentment among Russians.

China is more responsible for deforestation in Indochina than any other outside country, especially due to timber extraction and rubber production in Laos, and more broadly in Southeast Asia, notably in Malaysia and Indonesia (the largest source of illegal tropical wood imports by China), largely as a consequence of its purchase of agricultural commodities.

China is the largest market for palm oil that has been produced in environmentally unsustainable ways, providing powerful economic incentive for Chinese and local companies operating in Indonesia and Malaysia, where up to 4 million hectares of tropical forests have been replaced by palm plantations.

China’s blossoming demand for durian fruit is leading to “a new wave of deforestation” in Malaysia, where large swathes of rainforest have been cut to make way for industrial-scale durian tree plantations.

Durians. Photo: Pixabay.

China accounts for roughly 40 percent of global consumption of natural rubber. Demand for that rubber by China’s automobile and tyre industries has resulted in widespread deforestation in Cambodia as diverse tropical forests have been razed and replaced by rubber-tree plantations, many of them owned by Chinese companies, in the process destroying local ecosystems and biodiversity while simultaneously eliminating vital carbon sinks.

Widespread destruction of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest is driven by China’s appetite for soy, beef, timber, and minerals, and by Chinese financing of rainforest conversion to farmland and pastures (often on land directly purchased by Chinese corporations), and by China-financed development projects (including those implemented by China’s state-owned companies), not least railways and other transport infrastructure that facilitate the movement of commodities to the coast for export to China.

The resulting wealth generated for Brazil’s large agribusinesses has enabled local and national politicians eager to exploit the rainforest. 

According to one forecast, trade conflict between China and the United States, which resulted in China cutting its purchase of American soybean, will result in “a surge in tropical deforestation” as China replaces soy from the United States with soy from Brazil. Even before China’s imports started to increase due to the China-US dispute, two-thirds of Brazil’s soy exports went to China, and now they are approaching 80 percent.

A soy bean field in the US. Photo: Wikicommons.

China is complicit in the destruction of virgin rainforests on the Solomon Islands. It is by far the largest destination for the country’s raw logs, which are being cut at a rate that is more than 19 times the sustainable level and could result in the Solomons’ rainforests disappearing within 15 years.

This destruction has been exacerbated since the Solomons changed their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Chinese logging and mineral companies operating in the country have a history of bribery, and now they can get direct support from the Chinese embassy to lobby officials. Observers have tied recent violent unrest in the Solomons to China’s role in corrupt logging and mining.

China’s deleterious effect on forests is similarly experienced in Africa. For example, China’s demand for wood products and logging in the region by Chinese companies have resulted in a massive loss of tree cover in the Congo basin.

These examples describe only a fraction of the destruction to the world’s forests instigated by China. Further systematic ruination comes from development projects in China’s much-celebrated Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including direct destruction by Chinese corporations. Ongoing deforestation along the terrestrial belt of the BRI is especially evident in those areas where forests were intact until the arrival of Chinese “development.” 

A Tapanuli orangutan. Photo: Wikicommons.

This is evidenced by five new dams being built under the aegis of the BRI in Indonesia’s Kalimantan region as part of a huge industrial and manufacturing hub, the creation of which involves stripping large areas of primary rainforest. This results in permanent harm to local biodiversity and will lead to future greenhouse gas emissions (because the felled rainforest will no longer absorb carbon and the dams’ reservoirs will eventually release heat-trapping methane.)

Similarly, as part of the BRI, the Bank of China has financed dam construction in Sumatra that is razing more Indonesian forest and threatening the Tapanuli orangutan with extinction.

Chinese banks are providing billions of US dollars in finance to beef, palm oil, pulp and paper, rubber, soy, and timber businesses that are driving deforestation globally. Those banks have done this despite publicly available reports showing that many of the companies receiving funds are linked to forest destruction.

In their rapacious efforts to extract timber from the world’s forests, Chinese corporations have harmed the social welfare of local people, undermined environmental sustainability, and exacerbated the climate crisis.

Deforestation. File photo: Pok Rie, via Pexels.

To be sure, about a third of China’s timber imports are in turn exported as finished products. However, this acknowledgement belies the fact that consumers of those products are kept unaware that they are buying things that were made from illegally obtained wood, and that their purchases come at the cost of destroying forest ecosystems around the world.

Despite an ostensible desire to be an ecological civilisation and official proclamations to care about the world’s forests, China is complicit in global deforestation because its dramatic economic rise has given it the resources and power to take what it wants, regardless of the consequences.

This is having a devastating impact on livelihoods and biodiversity in some of the world’s poorest regions. What’s more, Chinese money poured into forest extraction is empowering corrupt officials and authoritarian strongmen, such as Prime Minister Hun Sen in Cambodia. 

China’s demand for timber is a universal calamity; it is making global warming and climate change much worse. China is already by far the largest national source of global greenhouse gas pollution.

By aiding, funding, encouraging, facilitating, and often directly committing the destruction of forest carbon sinks, China is adding to its already gargantuan impact on the earth. This shows that it is still not truly serious about being a leader on addressing the climate crisis.

Even if current practices are reversed and Xi’s supposed love of trees is somehow translated into practice abroad, the global impact will be felt for centuries. So far, China’s rise has been a recipe for rampant deforestation globally. The path toward China’s ecological civilisation is bestrewn with environmental devastation.


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Paul G. Harris

Paul G. Harris is the Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong. He is the author/editor of two dozen books on global environmental politics, policy and ethics. Learn more about Paul's work on his website.