How China Is Bringing Its Forests Back

From a bird’s eye view, a study by NASA using satellite data reveals the earth is becoming greener. China and India combined account for a third of the overall growth. The bulk of India’s greening comes from croplands (82%) and only 4.4% increases from forests. While in China, forests account for most growth (42%), and croplands make up another 32%. 

A close up of a map

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(source: NASA)

This change can be better illustrated using World Bank’s data. But to explain how this change happened, we need to come down from a bird’s eye view down to the ground level.

(Source: World Bank)

Yang Shanzhou (杨善洲) 

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Yang Shanzhou was troubled by water, more specifically, by  the lack of it. At that time, he was the secretary of Baoshan prefectural Party committee. Without much other industry, Baoshan’s economy was heavily reliant on farming, but droughts occurred more and more frequently. The reason, he believed, was deforestation. During the Great Leap Forward, tons of trees were chopped down to fuel backyard furnaces for steel-making (although without success). In the following decades, more trees were taken down for construction and heating. Without trees, after heavy rainfall in summer, water couldn’t be stored in the soil, which led to more years of drought.

When he retired in 1988, instead of going to a state-owned cadre retirement home in Kunming, which provided one of the best levels of hospitality at that time, he stayed in his hometown, Daliang Shan, a rural mountainous area. He then decided to plant trees. The conditions were harsh. He led the locals and set up a camp on a barren mountain in the middle of nowhere. He began to plant trees the next day, and the day after that, and continued to do so for the next 22 years.

In 2010, Yang’s health condition deteriorated and he transferred the forest farm, which was valued at over 300 million yuan (about 50 million USD) to a state park voluntarily. The new park manager wanted to reward him financially. But Yang said, “I just want to do something for my fellow countryman. It’s nothing. When I was born, the mountains were all green. I want to hand them to our offspring as green as green as it used to be.”

He passed away the next year.

(Source: Qian Jiang, ‘杨善洲:献给家乡满山绿“, The People’s Daily. 8.15, 2003 )

Shi Shuzhu (石述柱)

According to a TV interview by Phoenix Zone, Shi Shuzhu planted trees for almost his entire life, over a half century in Songhe Village, Gansu Province, northwest China. The environment there is even more unforgiving than the southwest. The village is sandwiched between China’s largest and second largest desert. He remembered, in the past, the dust storms devastated any crops, buried houses, and sometimes even entire villages would be swallowed up by the drifting sand.

Planting trees in the desert is difficult. First, wheat straws were woven together and fixed in the sand, to slow the sand movement. Then, extremely drought tolerant bushes were planted at the front line. Because it’s so dry, no tree can survive. Only after that, when the environment improved, can drought tolerant trees be planted as the main defense line against desertification.

There are thousands of people just like Shi that devoted their life in control desertification. They are a part of a larger project, “Three-North Shelter Forest Program”. It’s a massive endeavor of human-planted windbreaking forest strips in Northern China. Over the forty years of these projects, people like Shi planted trees covering 116,380 square miles (for comparison, California is 163,695 square miles.) The forest cover rate increased from 5.05% in 1978 to 13.57% today. 

Of course, any project at this scale rarely goes without criticism. Chinese Academy of Forestry Fellow, Hou Yuanzhao explained in an interview that in some areas, the trees that were planted at the beginning of the program have started dying now. Problems also arise when the human-planted forest doesn’t transition to natural as hoped but rather seems gradual and unstable. With that been said, according to a paper published in the Chinese Journal of Ecology, the program indeed had a large positive impact environmentally in northwest China.

(Source: Phoenix Zone)

Alipay’s Ant Forest

Today, planting trees is no longer a mission of the dedicated few. The city dwellers are also participating. In 2016 AilPay, China’s mobile payment giant, started a social welfare campaign–Ant Forest. Users collects tokens by participating in activities that reduce carbon emissions. For example, taking the bus can collect 80 grams of “carbon energy”, riding bikes can collect up to 150 grams, using paperless tickets and bills are also worth tokens. The tokens can be used to grow a “Virtual Sapling” on your phone. When the sapling becomes a full grown tree, AilPay, owned by Alibaba, will sponsor the planting of a real tree. 

Alipay Ant Forest users can see satellite images of their trees in real-time. The image in the center shows a patch of land in Inner Mongolia before Ant Forest began planting trees, while the image to its right shows the same location in 2017 — the stripes are newly planted saxaul trees.
(Source: Alizila

In April 22, 2019, after only three short years, AilPay announced Ant Forest had over 500 million users, and planted 100 million trees. Being green and environmentally conscious had become a socially fashionable trend. 

These are the stories of how China became greener. A volunteering retiree orientated at the grassroots level, a government program effort from top-down, and the market/financial section that connects millions of strangers in an online community, all working toward the same goal. Through these combined efforts from all levels of society, China has led the way toward global greening. 

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Wensupu Yang

Wensupu (Wen) Yang is an undergraduate student at UCSD studying Management Science. Wen first came to U.S. as a cultural exchange student at the age of sixteen. He’s interested in sharing observations and thoughts on social and cultural aspects of modern China in the hope of prompt discussion and mutual understanding. You can reach Wen at

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