Did you plant a tree yesterday?

Yesterday, 12 March, was Arbor Day in China. As usual, Chinese media ran profiles of heroic tree-planters alongside photos of people planting trees. There was one unusual piece of news, however: China's compliance rate for tree-planting rose ten points in 2006, to 55%.

According to a 1981 NPC resolution, all able-bodied Chinese citizens older than age 11 have an obligation to plant three to five trees every year. A measure passed the following year by the State Council charged work units with making sure that citizens fulfilled their obligations and paid the necessary penalties for non-compliance.

Today's The Beijing News carried an op-ed by Southern Weekly news director Guo Guangdong that argues for a revision of the old NPC resolution on two grounds: pervasive non-compliance, and the unsophisticated legal language of the text. Some excerpts:

Yesterday was Arbor Day. In most areas of the country, the time around 12 March is an excellent time for planting trees. Have you planted trees this year? If your answer is "no," then I'm sorry, you are in violation of the law.

However, in my experience, people who for many years running have not fulfilled their legal tree-planting obligation are not in the minority. The last time I planted a tree was 15 years ago, and in recent years it's been a rare thing for one of my acquaintances to carry out this duty. And a Survey on National Compulsory Tree-Planting Compliance Rates and Related Matters conducted on a national scale by the National Greening Commission demonstrated that the violations are widespread and severe. The study showed that compliance with the law among citizens in the affected age-bracket stood at 45%.

So a law that started off so positively has encountered awkwardness in its implementation, leading many citizens into unwitting violation of the law. Why has it come to this? The reason is not hard to find. The resolution was promulgated during an era when China was first transitioning from a planned economy to a market economy. People were still in "work units." More than twenty years later, however, the whole structure of Chinese society has experienced massive changes, employment in non-state-owned work units has continually increased, not to mention the massive jump in the numbers of self-employed. And there are countles laborers who have come from the farms to the cities. All of these people unquestionably are situated in conditions in which carrying out their tree-planting obligations is neither convenient nor manageable.

In addition, the national compulsory tree-planting campaign has been going on for more than twenty years. In many cities, particularly large cities, the outskirts that are relatively easily made green have been made green already, and further tree planting must take place relatively far off or in areas where conditions not ideal. For most average urban residents, carrying out their legal tree-planting obligation is more than a bit difficult.

More seriously, the Resolution and the Provisions are the products of the early days of the legal system, when the Cultural Revolution had just concluded, and when legal concepts and techniques were still immature. The text of the law is shorter than 450 characters, yet it makes heavy use of non-legal language such as "Mobilize everone, plant trees every year - the foolish old man moved the mountain. Unremittingly struggle together to build our great socialist motherland." (人人动手,年年植树,愚公移山,坚持不懈,为建设我们伟大的社会主义祖国而共同奋斗) and so forth. Were it a proposal, there would be nothing wrong with such dated language, but as a legal text it is conspicuously behind the times. To a certain extent, this is a confusion of the borders between the law, morality, and policy, and brings up a compulsory demand that is somewhat removed from objective reality.

However, it is in the end a law that is still in effect. Simply sitting to one side and watching large-scale illegal activity will inevitably reduce the authority of the entire legal system. Times change, and political reform is needed. The Legislation Law says "Lawmaking shall be based on actual circumstances, and shall, in a scientific and reasonable manner, prescribe the rights and obligations of citizens, legal persons and other organizations" [official translation]. This writer recommends that the NPC and the State Council plan to revise or completely rewrite the legal statutes on compulsory tree-planting as soon as possible to spur on greening efforts in China.

State Forestry Administration head Jia Zhibang, in a recent interview with Economic Daily, noted how the tree-planting campaign had helped the cause of reforestation over the past decades, as well as how it continues to contribute to the building of a harmonious society. Jia notes that the country's 800 million rural residents are the major force in the campaign, but he also reads off a list of commemorative forest projects:

The larger populace fulfills their planting obligations in many ways. "Carving one's wishes onto a tree, and placing one's feelings in the forest" - planting commemorative trees and creating commemorative forests has become fashionable and has formed a whole collection of things like a "leaders' forest," "generals' forest," "party members' forest," "young people's forest," "women's forest," "reporters' forest," "friendship forest," "birthday forest," "commemorative wedding forest," "enlistment forest," and "discharge forest."

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There are currently 5 Comments for Did you plant a tree yesterday?.

Comments on Did you plant a tree yesterday?

Very interesting that. I'm always fascintated when the notion of mobilising the awesome Chinese population to do great and worthy tasks takes place. Hope the tree planting takes off again in the future.

Yes, I planted a tree. But a week later I found out my tree was pullen out of the ground, only to be resold. How low can the Chinese get? its sickening. No more planting trees for me.

I planted trees in Shanxi once. I wondered at the time why we were only planting three each. I didn't know that was the legal minimum. The next year we went back again - 80% of our trees had died. Could be worse. A friend went on a tree planting trip to Inner Mongolia. All of their trees died. Oh dear.

When they say everyone should plant 3-5 trees, does that mean you can't plant more? seems kinda strange to say that.

No, but I did get wood.

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