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Why Xi Jinping Has Lofty Visions of Green Mountains

China’s environmental rhetoric is rooted in party history.

By , an assistant professor at the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs.
Chinese President Xi Jinping makes an inspection tour.
Chinese President Xi Jinping makes an inspection tour.
Chinese President Xi Jinping makes an inspection tour in Hebei province, China, on Aug. 23, 2021. Xie Huanchi/Xinhua via Getty Images

During a 2013 visit to Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi Jinping first articulated his vision of an eco-friendly developmental policy. He announced: “We want to have not only mountains of gold but also mountains of green. If we must choose between the two, we would rather have the green than the gold. And in any case, green mountains are themselves gold mountains.”

Since 2013, this “two mountains” theory, as Chinese state-run media calls it, has become a core part of Xi’s political rhetoric and strategic vision for China’s eco-friendly economic future. It might seem a strange choice for an ecological vision usually more associated with forests and fields than jagged slopes. But mountains, metaphorical and otherwise, have played a key role in the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

According to CCP folklore, the “cradle of Chinese revolution” is the Jinggang Mountains. It was in this mountain range where then-Chinese leader Mao Zedong set up the first rural revolutionary base in 1927 for his communist forces. Seven years later, Mao’s Red Army set forth on their Long March through the rugged, snow-capped mountains of northern China. This treacherous journey later formed the backbone of Mao’s hagiography and bolstered his status as a charismatic leader. In a speech in December 1935, Mao declared, “The Long March is propaganda. It has announced to some 200 million people in 11 provinces that the road of the Red Army is their only road to liberation.” The use of mountains as a metaphor is not new in China’s political culture. In a 1948 speech to party cadres, Mao said his revolutionary forces needed to overthrow the “three great mountains” of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism.

During a 2013 visit to Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi Jinping first articulated his vision of an eco-friendly developmental policy. He announced: “We want to have not only mountains of gold but also mountains of green. If we must choose between the two, we would rather have the green than the gold. And in any case, green mountains are themselves gold mountains.”

Since 2013, this “two mountains” theory, as Chinese state-run media calls it, has become a core part of Xi’s political rhetoric and strategic vision for China’s eco-friendly economic future. It might seem a strange choice for an ecological vision usually more associated with forests and fields than jagged slopes. But mountains, metaphorical and otherwise, have played a key role in the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

According to CCP folklore, the “cradle of Chinese revolution” is the Jinggang Mountains. It was in this mountain range where then-Chinese leader Mao Zedong set up the first rural revolutionary base in 1927 for his communist forces. Seven years later, Mao’s Red Army set forth on their Long March through the rugged, snow-capped mountains of northern China. This treacherous journey later formed the backbone of Mao’s hagiography and bolstered his status as a charismatic leader. In a speech in December 1935, Mao declared, “The Long March is propaganda. It has announced to some 200 million people in 11 provinces that the road of the Red Army is their only road to liberation.” The use of mountains as a metaphor is not new in China’s political culture. In a 1948 speech to party cadres, Mao said his revolutionary forces needed to overthrow the “three great mountains” of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism.

For the CCP, mountains represent the hardships of building socialist China while also embodying the heights to which the Chinese people can reach under the party’s supposedly benevolent care. Mountains have symbolically served as sources of spiritual rejuvenation that bound the party’s aspirations to the land itself. It signifies the unity of China’s revolutionary politics to its agrarian origins.

The CCP’s use of mountain metaphors is one of those rare bits of communist speak that can trace its origins back to Chinese cultural traditions. According to Daoist philosophy, mountains serve as communications channels between heaven and earth. In ancient times, emperors went on sacred pilgrimages, combining religious and political power, to the Five Great Mountains that span the heartland of China. This idea of mountains as havens has deep cultural roots in China, a rhetorical heritage that the CCP is happy to use.

Under Xi, the mountains metaphor has taken on greater symbolic importance in the CCP’s official discourse. The “two mountains” theory directly connects Xi to Mao’s revolutionary legacy and legitimizes Xi as a historically significant Chinese leader on par with Mao: the “Great Helmsman.” Much like Mao’s encouragement of the Red Guards to retrace the Long March via pilgrimages, Xi has also encouraged Chinese citizens to review the revolutionary history of the party. “Only by experiencing the hardships of revolutionary era can people truly receive education,” Xi said in a 2016 speech. From 2016 to 2020, the Chinese government allocated nearly $370 million in promoting “red tourism.”

Other communist regimes have attached great political significance to their mountainous regions and terrains. For example, North Korean state-run media refers to its dynastic leadership as being part of the “Mount Baekdu revolutionary bloodline,” and the Castro regime in Cuba proudly declared their aim of “turning the Cordillera of the Andes into the Sierra Maestra of Latin America.”

In actuality, communist parties have an extremely poor record of environmentalism and sustainability. The nuclear accident at Chernobyl and the decimation of Lake Baikal and the Aral Sea made the late Soviet Union into an ecological hellscape. In rural North Korea, deforestation in uplands has resulted in landslides and soil erosion, which exacerbate food insecurity issues in the countryside. China is no stranger to environmental issues in mountainous areas. For example, in northwestern China near the city of Lanzhou, hundreds of mountains have been recently flattened to make room for city planning and more urban housing complexes. However, due to dirt from the excavation, mountain top removal has exacerbated the already poor air quality in Lanzhou.

With rising temperatures and air pollution troubles in China, Xi has taken the initiative to combat climate issues and promote ecological sustainability both at home and abroad. In a September 2021 speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Xi vowed not to build coal-fired power projects abroad and pledged to make China carbon neutral by 2060. In an official CCP Central Committee policy document on rural revitalization from February, the party announced their hard measures “with teeth” to improve farmland, such as guiding new development in forestry and orchard industries on hills and mountainsides.

Solving the dialectic relationship between environmentalism and economic development has been one of Xi’s own theoretical contributions to Chinese socialist doctrine. At the 2021 Leaders’ Summit on Climate on Earth Day, Xi said: “We must be committed to green development. Green mountains are gold mountains. To protect the environment is to protect productivity, and to improve the environment is to boost productivity—the truth is as simple as that.” No longer was rapid industrial growth at all costs the single rallying cry for the party’s economic vision. Amid U.S backsliding on global environmental issues, the CCP leadership recognized that environmentalism and sustainability was a global and national economic issue that Beijing could take the lead on.

Xi’s “two mountains” concept is part of his leadership’s focus on combatting climate change alongside promoting economic growth. In 2014, Xi stated, “Protecting the ecological environment means protecting the productive forces. Clear water, green mountains, and mountains of gold and silver are not opposites. The key lies in people and ideas.”

The CCP leadership has made an important turn from thinking of economic growth as extracting resources from the natural environment, such as mining in mountainous regions, to now seeing technologically advanced cities and cyber power as the future of sustainable economic development. Chinese official rhetoric has acknowledged that an “industrial greening” needs to take place. For instance, in 2017, Miao Wei, a top Chinese industry and technology regulator, wrote in a report for the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology that “Green manufacturing is an essential trend in the development of the manufacturing industry. It is also the only way to solve the resource and environmental constraints faced in China’s industrialization.”

But while mountains can be symbols of prosperity, they can also be obstacles. Chinese citizens now claim the “three big mountains” confronting China’s growing middle class are the rising costs associated with education, housing, and health care. That’s language that the party hasn’t adopted but a problem it’s still wary of. The CCP has switched from the literal to the metaphorical mountain in its economic vision. However, a constant fixture of CCP official discourse is the unyielding role of party discipline and control in all matters of socioeconomic life. Men may literally move mountains in China, but the party commands them.

The use of mountains in Xi’s slogan is not empty rhetoric. It denotes the important ways in which Xi sees himself as the next torchbearer of Chinese socialist construction—building on Maoist legacies and transforming the nature of the Chinese economy from resource extraction to one built on human capital, tightly controlled by the party.

Benjamin R. Young is an assistant professor at the Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World.

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