As the world focuses increasingly on climate change and COVID-19 exacerbates existing global issues, sustainable development has never played such an important role. The international community has acted, having set 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. China has also taken action, having completed its goal of eliminating extreme poverty, and by setting new targets for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions along with its drive to achieve “common prosperity” for all its people. Could Chinese innovative and successful practices be useful or enlightening for the rest of the world?
This November, the Guanghua-Kellogg Executive MBA program was privileged to invite Wu Hongbo, the Special Representative of the Chinese Government for European Affairs and former UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, for a Master Class to share his formidable experience and knowledge on the topic “Global Sustainable Development and the Innovative Practices of China”.
Special Representative of the Chinese Government for European Affairs
Former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
Wu Hongbo is currently the Special Representative of the Chinese Government on European Affairs, Co-Director (adjunct professor) of Institute for Sustainable Development Goals of Tsinghua University, and President of the China International Public Relations Association. He served as Chinese Senior Representative to the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, Director-General of the Department of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan Affairs and then the General Duties Office at the Chinese Foreign Ministry. He also served as Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines and Germany. Wu then worked as Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations from 2012 to 2017. He served successively as the Secretary-General of the third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (Apia, 2014), the third International Conference on Financing for Development (Addis Ababa, 2015), the Global Sustainable Transport Conference (Ashgabat, 2016) and the first UN Ocean Conference (New York, 2017).
The Present Status of the World
With the world facing unprecedented challenges, Wu stressed the need to act quickly. Acute water shortages have left 2.2 billion people without access to safe drinking water while 3 billion have no basic sanitary facilities. Similarly, the condition of the sea is deteriorating as 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped every year, with the plastic in the sea set to outweigh fish by 2050. As the world’s population reaches almost 10 billion by 2050, further pressure will be placed on energy and resources. If the world continues on its present trajectory, we may need three to four globes to satisfy our needs by the end of the century. The present way is not sustainable and sustainable development is a necessity.
The Concept of Sustainable Development
Using the most widely accepted definition, Wu outlined sustainable development as “the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Over the years, Wu noted that the focus of the global community has shifted from the poverty relief of the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000 to the Sustainable Development Goals which went into force in 2016 as part of the UN 2030 Agenda. These goals address 17 targets focused on the five Ps: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership.
The development goals have already experienced severe setbacks, Wu argues. The Covid-19 pandemic pushed 70 million people back to extreme poverty and caused an additional 83 million to go hungry, making the goals of eradicating poverty and hunger more difficult to reach. At the same time, 2,500 billionaires have seen their combined wealth increase by 5.2 billion USD daily while 4 billion people lack even a basic form of social security. Furthermore, although the 2030 Agenda is an international agreement, it is not legally binding.
The Innovative Practices of China
With all the challenges ahead, Wu emphasized that we are facing disaster. However, China, with its novel and successful approach to development, offers lessons for the world.
China has prioritized sustainable development and Professor Xi emphasized that "No single poor area or single poor person should be left behind." The implementation of sustainable development has remained consistent since the 1990s, despite leadership changes. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, poverty alleviation efforts continued and China reached its target ahead of the UN schedule. China has also made public “double carbon targets”, contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Organization and Coordination
SDGs should be incorporated into national development strategies for better implementation. Soon after the UN endorsed the 2030 Agenda in 2015, all the SDGs were incorporated into China’s 13th Five-Year-Plan. Field operations also play a vital role. Over the past five years, the Chinese government sent 250,000 task teams with 5 million officials to every poor village for poverty relief.
All Chinese government agencies and officials were given specific responsibilities. For example, leading officials of 22 provinces in central and western China signed written pledges on poverty relief to the Central Authorities. Officials failing to perform their duties are disciplined. Since the Delta variant broke out, China has held more than 100 officials accountable, preventing any deaths. The results of poverty elimination have also been publicly disclosed to ensure the deregistered population is qualified.
Data and Indicators
The Chinese government prioritized data collection, conducting repeated household visits and on spot investigations to ensure that poverty alleviation goals were reached. Disaggregated data was emphasized to create targeted solutions for individual households. China also created new measures, chiefly the “Two not worries” (adequate food and clothing), and “Three guarantees” (access to compulsory education, basic medical services, and safe housing), which are more practical with higher standards than UN indicators.
To make full use of its financial resources, China introduced paired assistance pairing less developed regions with wealthier provinces. 343 counties of 9 provinces in eastern China offered paired assistance of 100 billion RMB to 573 poor counties in 14 provinces in less-developed central and western China. Additionally, the resources of government, business, and other institutions were mobilized. Individuals and private enterprises also contributed, benefitting over 18 million people in poverty.
The government also used other innovative approaches. For example, PV power stations were built in 100,000 poor Chinese villages, creating jobs and providing revenue. In impoverished areas, dropouts from compulsory education returned to school, and over 8 million middle and high school graduates received vocational training.
These practices along with other methods, Wu said, enabled China to achieve its targets. Learning from China’s approach can assist the other countries in their sustainable development, offering the world a better future.
Following his Master Class, Wu answered questions allowing students to form their own perspectives on the future of sustainable development. Members of the audience engrossed themselves in the night’s topic and debated China’s methods and how its approach could be applied elsewhere.
For the business leaders at the Guanghua-Kellogg EMBA, sustainable and ethical business as well as advancing cross-cultural communication are unifying goals at the program. Wu’s words offer not only hope for the future, but concrete ideas and ideals to strive for. Let us work together to realize global sustainable development for generations to come.