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New economic and social challenges (8 January 2007)

Development must not be confined to isolated enclaves of the affluent and the privileged.

Speech by Maurice F. Strong at Third China Hainan Ecological Culture Forum and Development Exhibition, Sanya, Hainan 8 January, 2007

"Distinguished leaders and representatives of this beautiful city of Sanya, Hainan Province, honored guests and participants at this important Forum and Exhibition, let me first extend my warm congratulations to you for convening and hosting this important and timely event and to all those who have joined in sponsoring and supporting it. It comes at a critical time when this beautiful island province is at a crossroads on the pathway to its future. Great changes have taken place since I first visited Hainan 15 years ago. What has not changed is the natural beauty or this island and the resourcefulness and hospitality of its people.

The uniquely diverse culture and rich natural endowment of Hainan make it one of China's most precious national treasures. It is now experiencing development on an unprecedented scale as it participates in and contributes to China's rapid rise as the world's most dynamically growing economy. Hainan now has a great opportunity to become a world center of eco-culture, demonstrating the lasting benefits of sustainable development based on harmony between man and nature and guided by science. I am grateful for the honor of sharing with you some of the thoughts and reflections that arise from my own experience in the environment and sustainable development movement in which I have been privileged to be closely associated with China, and particularly SEPA which has become one of the world’s most respected environment agencies and I am pleased to see is being given a stronger and more influential voice in China’s development decisions.

As the most ancient, creative and resilient civilization that has survived as a nation, China has again emerged as one of the world's great nations, which, more than any, is leading the changes that will determine the global future. All nations and peoples have a deep interest in China's success and in cooperating with China to achieve it, rather than seeking to stop or impair China's progress. This is a great time to be Chinese, and it is a privilege for friends of China to share this exciting adventure with you and to do our best to contribute to it. This is why after more than forty years of relationship with China, I am now spending most of my time here.

In the foreign media and in the discussions I frequently have with foreigners, I am amazed and deeply concerned by how little they really know about China, and even more, how little they understand what they know. This is particularly true of its critics. They have a tendency to view China's remarkable economic growth as a threat, rather than acknowledging the benefits it is producing for others, in opening up its own markets, and contributing to the low levels of inflation, cost of living, and interest rates that have enabled the richest of countries to prosper. At the same time, China’s trade with and investments in developing countries and direct assistance to them has helped the poorest countries to develop.

Concerns expressed by the United States, Japan, and some others as to the growing power and influence of China, the threat it is said to pose to peace and security in the region find no validity or support in China's history or its current policies. The conflicts in which it has been engaged in the past have been those required to preserve the cohesion of the nation and secure its borders rather than expanding into territories of its neighbors. China's government today is clearly committed to use its economic progress to foster peaceful change for the benefit of its own people and the security and prosperity of the region and the world. In doing so, China is reshaping the world’s political landscape, shifting its center of gravity towards Asia and redressing the gross imbalances, which for so long have concentrated disproportionate power and benefits in the privileged minority of the more developed countries. This historic transformation gives rise to strong reactions and concerns on the part of those who feel threatened or disadvantaged by these changes. But overall, it promises to produce a more equitable, peaceful, and sustainable world community.



Unprecedent opportunities

The unprecedented opportunities awaiting China are accompanied by equally unprecedented challenges. Demographics is one of the sources of these, in that the rapidly aging population will inevitably produce a shortage of the abundant labor which has made such an essential contribution to China's economic miracle. Some Chinese experts have expressed the fear that their land will grow old before it grows rich. By 2050, the ratio of China's retirees to its working population will be amongst the highest in the world, rising from ten percent currently to more than thirty percent. I predict that many will decide that Hainan is the ideal place to make their home, bringing a new era of opportunity to Hainan.

This will give rise to new economic and social challenges. Many retirees have experience, skills, and access to resources that will enable them to support themselves, to start their own small businesses or consultancies, participate in public service, educational and voluntary activities. This will also require local governments to establish and improve the facilities and services for a growing population. No industry is better positioned to provide these facilities and services than tourism and travel.

China is emerging as the world's leading tourist destination, and the most rapidly growing source of tourists to other world destinations. Most tourists in China will be the Chinese themselves. I am greatly impressed with how eagerly and enthusiastically they are responding to the new opportunities to visit and get to know their own country and how this makes them even more proud of its history, its culture, and its astounding progress. There is a vast expansion of internal tourism in China, as road, rail, and services improve and the Chinese seek to know other parts of their own country. Hainan will more and more become their favorite destination.

Today the changes which are determining the conditions of life and the future prospects of people everywhere are occurring within a global framework in which all contribute to and are affected by the cumulative results of our individual actions and behavior. These phenomena are centered in the cities and know no boundaries. Within China what happens in one city or region clearly affects others.

The much higher priority China is now according to protecting nature, ensuring sustainable supplies of water to its people, reducing the threats and the consequences of communicable diseases, enforcing higher standards of pollution control and waste disposal will produce much needed improvements in the quality of life of the Chinese people and its attractiveness to visitors.

China’s progress in achieving these higher standards will be on display to the world during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010. These are not the only major events that are being held in China that attract outside attention and participation. The world attention these events will focus on China will illuminate its problems as well as its progress.

The decisions and actions taken now will determine the future of Hainan and the prospects of a better life for its people. The experience of others has taught us that development which undermines and damages the environment and natural resources on which the economy depends, benefiting mostly a privileged few, exacts a heavy long-term cost that must be borne by the majority of people, denying them the better future to which they aspire. Hainan is better positioned than most other parts of China to preserve, and indeed, enhance, its rich natural environment, as well as the culture and traditions of its peoples, which are its most precious assets. But Hainan is now at the crossroads at which these are already under pressure and at risk of damage and deterioration. Fortunately, Hainan still has the opportunity to choose the sustainable development pathway which balances the environmental, social, and economic dimensions of the development process to ensure that the benefits of development are broadly shared and appreciated. But time is running out.



Damaging consequences

The damaging consequences of the developments undertaken today will be largely irreversible or too costly to remedy. It would be presumptuous for me to offer specific advice without much greater knowledge of local conditions and priorities. But as a result of my experiences in other parts of the world which have faced similar challenges, I can cite some of the lessons which Hainan can consider in taking the decisions which will shape its future.

One such example is the Costa del Sol, a beautifully endowed coastal area of Spain which allowed, even encouraged, its tourist industry at a level of intensity and low quality which brought prosperity that was short-lived and has created conditions that are no longer attractive either to tourists or to local residents. Indeed, people of the region are even now protesting against further development, which they see as a threat to their culture and ways of life. The same is true in many other parts of the world and there are already signs of this even here in Hainan.

One of the important lessons to be learned from these experiences is that development must not be confined to isolated enclaves of the affluent and the privileged. While high-end development is essential, it must be more fully linked with and integrated into the broader local economy to the point where local residents see it as a welcomed addition to their community and participate in the benefits such developments can produce. It can, for example, help to support preservation and maintenance of the local culture and a variety of local businesses and activities in which visitors can become an integral part of the local community. This ensures that many of them will return and develop close and continuing links with the community to the benefit of both. It will also add to their sense of security which is a problem for all places in which there is such a contrast between visitors and people of the community.

Of course, Hainan's development in taking place in the larger context of the challenges confronting China as a nation and indeed the entire global community, of which China is such an important part. The commitment of China to meeting the requirements of its membership in the World Trade Organization and the progress it is making towards this are encouraging. Yet, there are still many obstacles and bad habits to overcome. China's traditional virtues of hospitality, resourcefulness, and frugality will, I am sure, triumph over the bad habits that have developed during the explosive economic growth China has experienced in recent years.



New opportunities

Of critical importance in this transition will be the further development of the skills and the attitudes of those who host visitors, service their needs and interests, and care for the cultural and natural heritage which attracts them. This will provide a multitude of new opportunities in every part of China. It will also require a massive expansion of education and training for the legions of people who can respond to and benefit from these opportunities. Hainan is an attractive venue for this.

Technology is an essential feature of the prospect for positive and sustainable responses to these challenges. China with its long history of scientific and technological innovation now has one of the world’s most creative and respected science and technology communities. It is thus well-positioned to respond to the challenge of making the transition to a scientific approach to sustainable development to which its leaders are committed. China’s scientific and technological community is increasingly linked with its global counterparts. Indeed, the President of China’s Academy of Sciences, Professor Lu Yongxiang, co-chairs the Inter-Academy Council through which the leading academies of science of the world cooperate to address major global issues.

Though technology creates exciting new opportunities, it also has a downside. The mesmerizing attraction of the internet and of electronic games is producing for many a lifestyle that is sedentary and unhealthy and can have negative effects on personal and social relationships. Mass communications which enable people everywhere to be mainly observers of sporting and entertainment events are contributing, too, to inducing people to become passive instead of active participants in such events. I am encouraged to note that most Chinese have not yet succumbed to this, as evidenced by the many people I see in the parks and avenues near my home in Beijing, doing Tai-Chi exercises or running in the early morning.

The debilitating influences of McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and other western fast foods is undermining the health prospects of a new generation of Chinese. On the other side of this coin, the continued popularity of health clubs, bicycling, and other forms of physical activities can help keep them healthy. Longevity has been a major interest of Chinese over the years. It is important that these traditions not be lost to the unhealthy effects of the technologies of passivity.

In some parts of the world, tourism can literally overwhelm the local culture. This need not happen in Hainan. This Forum and Exhibition are an encouraging demonstration that Hainan is determined to manage its development and absorb the negative impacts of tourism to ensure it contributes to the preservation and sustainability of its environment, its values and culture heritage, rather than undermining them. But this requires that people know more about the diverse attractions of Hainan, and have ready and convenient access to them. The availability and quality of accommodation, food and services is rapidly improving as a result of the initiative of your local authorities and entrepreneurs, but these need even more improvement.



Heavy costs

Tourism is the world’s largest industry. China is on the way to becoming the world’s leading tourist nation, establishing new opportunities for employment and economic development in every part of China and nowhere more than Hainan. But all of its progress has also exacted heavy costs. The air and water pollution resulting from a combination of the concentration on industrial development and transportation, together with traffic congestion and social disruption have made most cities less healthy and attractive as places to live and to visit. Recent estimates of Green GDP indicate that environmental costs significantly reduce the real progress produced by China’s unprecedented economic growth. The indirect costs are undoubtedly much greater, including the costs of the opportunities lost for the expansion of tourism.

A fundamental change in Chinese attitudes and policies that have occurred during the past quarter century is how it regards nature. The negative consequences of earlier attempts to conquer or subvert nature, as manifested in the organized campaign to eradicate what were seen as harmful birds and insects largely failed. They did not adequately recognize the systemic and inter-related nature of the cause and effect system through which human activities impact on the complex systems of nature and in turn affect human life and well-being. Your leaders today are calling for a people-centered, harmonious, sustainable development, guided by science, which values China’s precious natural resources and rich cultural heritage, as economic assets which must be preserved and managed sustainably.

Since 1985, when China acceded to the World Heritage Convention more than 30 World Heritage Sites have been designated by UNESCO and many more are in the process of establishing their qualifications. These and the great variety of ecological and nature reserves must now be seen as an extremely important part of China’s natural capital, even more valuable than its currency reserves. Currency reserves can be rebuilt if they decline, but China’s natural capital, once destroyed, will be difficult, time-consuming, and costly to rebuild. In most cases, rebuilding will, in any event, be too late or not possible. Eco-tourism is a major source of the revenues required to maintain such natural capital and ensure that its economic and social benefits can be enjoyed on a sustainable basis.

There are many ways in which both Chinese and foreign visitors can enjoy and benefit from their leisure in China. Many of them are closely related to the tourist industry – entertainment, culture, religion, higher education, health, food, adventure, youth, and minorities, to name but a few. There is a special interest and constituency in all these fields. And the same is true of virtually every sector of professional, business, and social life. These often center on conferences and special events like this one, the organization of which has itself become a big business in China.

An important byproduct of the greater mobility of people within China and visitors to China is an expansion of the ability to understand and communicate with each other. More and more people are studying and speaking Mandarin and within China, Cantonese and minority languages are more widely studied and understood. My own first language, English, is becoming more universally studied and used.

All of this helps to enable people to expand their understanding and appreciation of the very different ethnic, religious, cultural, and ideological origins and beliefs. This establishes the foundations for peace and sustainable prosperity within and amongst nations. Peace is the indispensable key to continuing progress and prosperity. Conflict and warfare are costly in economic as well as human terms. Even the United States, which is still the world’s largest military as well as economic power, is finding that the warfare in which it is engaged imposes heavy burdens on its economy without resolving the problems it is designed to address. That is why it is so essential to strengthen the capacity of the United Nations and the processes of multilateral diplomacy to prevent conflicts before they arise, and when they do, to resolve them peacefully.

China’s commitment to peace and security makes life in China more hospitable for its own people and visitors. It is one of the most secure nations on Earth. There are, of course, pressures that could undermine its security; it is important that these continue to be contained. China’s peaceful rise is making it an increasingly important contributor to peace and security in the region, and indeed in the larger world. While China has made clear its determination to defend its territorial integrity, it is equally clear that it poses no threat to its neighbors, and indeed, helps to ensure their security.


This is the larger context in which Hainan's future is unfolding. Hainan, like all China, will benefit from its continuing peaceful rise and join in contributing to a more peaceful, secure, and harmonious world. Hainan is already becoming, with its Boao Forum, a leading center for dialogue on these larger regional and global issues. And this Hainan Culture Forum and Development Exhibition is helping to make Hainan a model of sustainable, harmonious development which will inspire and influence all of China and indeed this entire region in which the future of the global community is being decided. I am indeed grateful for the opportunity of participating in it and of learning far more than I can contribute in sharing these thoughts with you."