UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources


Blog: Economic growth or environmental protection? The fading jewel of the southwest China plateau

12 June 2023

UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources student Yixinzi Wang has written a blog about the future of the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau region in Kunming, China

Polluted Dianchi lake water

For some developing countries, even though the central government has a strong desire for environmental governance, areas with low-income levels are actually unwilling to implement strict environmental regulations for fear of harming local economic growth [1]. Dianchi in Kunming, China, is one such example.

Once a Garden of Eden

Dianchi, the largest freshwater lake in the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau, serves as Kunming's mother lake [2]. In the 1970s, Dianchi still had the beauty of "crystal- clear water, flocks of gulls hovering overhead, and fish and shrimps swimming around happily." It fed the local fishermen, irrigated the lake's agriculture, and was once the greatest summer joy for local people. But as China's economy developed and underwent reform and opening, the narrative started to change.

The Vanishing Mother Lake

In the 1980s, the lake was severely impacted by the growing urbanisation of the Dianchi basin. The lakeside population grew, and new structures and roads were developed. Farmers used lots of artificial fertilisers to boost production and dumped agricultural effluent directly into the lake [3]. Investors followed due to the rich mineral resources and spruce forests. Logging and mining activities around Dianchi exacerbated the pollution. Dianchi was covered in a thick layer of cyanobacteria and water hyacinth at its worst, emitting a foul smell. After decades of governance and over 50 billion RMB spent [4], Dianchi still remains moderately polluted, and seven aquatic animal species from the lake are extinct [5].

The conflict between economy and environment

When China's per capita GDP was less than $300, the central government had already established environmental protection regulations [6]. Still, local government officials have typically prioritised regional GDP growth to improve their political performance, ignoring environmental damage. Furthermore, local environmental protection bureaus lacked the local government's financial support and were unable to make a significant difference. The government sold mountains near Dianchi to real estate developers for profit. Just one local real estate project encompasses 92% of the mountains on the southern side of Dianchi, approximately 230 hectares [7]. Despite the previous experience of Dianchi, many places are still following its road to attain economic goals, with Poyang Lake in Jiangxi, Taihu Lake in Jiangsu and Dongting Lake in Hunan all having varying degrees of pollution problems. How to solve the conflict between economic development and environmental protection has become a challenging question.

Potential Solutions

To assist low- and middle-income regions in escaping their economic and environmental impasse, the central government needs to make some radical changes. Firstly, financial support should be supplied directly to local environmental protection bureaus, to make the money available for a specific purpose [8]. Secondly, the evaluation standards must be revised. “Green GDP” should be used, and officials’ environmental performance should be evaluated [9] [10]. Also, more monitoring of local environmental protection and pollution prevention is required, as well as increased public awareness of environmental protection.

President Xi of China has said [11]:

Green waters and green mountains are gold mountains and silver mountains.

Tragedies like Dianchi must never occur again.



  1. Hao, Y., Deng, Y., Lu, Z.-N. and Chen, H. (2018). ‘Is environmental regulation effective in China? Evidence from city-level panel data’, Journal of Cleaner Production, 188, pp.966–976. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324179327_Is_Environmental_Regulation_Effective_in_China_Evidence_from_City-Level_Panel_Data

  2. Wu, M. and Chen, B. (2016). ‘Assignment of provincial officials based on economic performance: Evidence from China’, China Economic Review, 38, pp.60–75. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/285361747_Assignment_of_provincial_officials_based_on_economic_performance_Evidence_from_China.

  3. Scally, P. (2016). ‘River diversion to flush pollution out of Yunnan’s Dianchi Lake’, China Dialogue. Available at: https://chinadialogue.net/en/pollution/8683- river-diversion-to-flush-pollution-out-of-yunnan-s-dianchi-lake/ (Accessed: 5 March 2023).

  4. Xie, E. (2021). ‘Chinese campaigner’s dedication to Dianchi Lake finally pays off’, South China Morning Post. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3133593/chinese-campaigners-dedication-dianchi-lake-finally-pays# (Accessed: 5 March 2023).

  5. Li, P. (2022). ‘In southwest China, dozens of unique species have quietly gone extinct’, SixthTone. Available at: https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1011886 (Accessed: 6 March 2023).

  6. Zhang, K.M. and Wen, Z.G. (2008). ‘Review and challenges of policies of environmental protection and sustainable development in China’, Journal of Environmental Management, 88(4), pp.1249–1261. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6072534_Review_and_Challenges_of_Policies_of_Environmental_Protection_and_Sustainable_Development_in_China

  7. Guo, K. (2021). ‘Buildings torn down inside protected area’, China Daily. Available at: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202105/13/WS609c7acfa31024ad0babd8bb_1.ht ml (Accessed: 6 March 2023).

  8. Pang, R., Zheng, D., Shi, M. and Zhang, X. (2019). ‘Pollute first, control later? Exploring the economic threshold of effective environmental regulation in China’s context’, Journal of Environmental Management, 248(109275). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336071147_Pollute_first_control_later_Exploring_the_economic_threshold_of_effective_environmental_regulation_in_China%27s_context

  9. Wang, J., Wang, L., Xiang, Y., Ricklin, D., Lambris, J.D. and Chen, G. (2016). ‘Using an in vitro xenoantibody-mediated complement-dependent cytotoxicity model to evaluate the complement inhibitory activity of the peptidic C3 inhibitor Cp40’, Clinical Immunology, 162, pp.37–44. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26548839/

  10. Zhang, X., Cai, Z.S., Chen, L.H. and Ruan, J.W. (2013). ‘Assessment on the water quality influenced by large-scale controlled planting of water hyacinth in the Dianchi Lake’, Advanced Materials Research, 726-731, pp.1782–1785. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-4292/15/9/2260

  11. CMF (2021). ‘Green Waters and Green Mountains’, China Media Project. Available at: https://chinamediaproject.org/the_ccp_dictionary/green-waters-and-green-mountains/ (Accessed: 7 March 2023).


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