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OPINIONMay 12, 2023

WB official’s China insight: growth, resilience, greenness

Editor’s note: Mara Warwick, now the World Bank country director for China, was the World Bank’s Wenchuan Earthquake Recovery Project (2009-2014) after the devastating Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008 that claimed more than 69,000 lives and affected many parts of China. She also served as a volunteer for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games later the same year. In an exclusive interview with China Daily’s Zhu Ping, Zhao Manfeng and Pan Yixuan, Warwick shared her story and her insight into China’s development transformation since her first visit to the country 30 years ago. Excerpts follow:

Question: May 12 marks the 15th anniversary of the devastating Wenchuan earthquake. You have said that you were moved by China’s recovery capacity and resilience. Is there anyone or any story that particularly impresses you today?

Answer: I was able to travel with our management team and members of the national and provincial government to the earthquake-affected area about one month after the earthquake. We traveled to Leigu township, a town that was hosting a lot of displaced people from Beichuan (a severely ravaged county near the epicenter), and the surrounding areas. There was a very big tent camp there. It’s a visit that I will always remember … to see the people who had been so affected by the earthquake. We talked to local people about their urgent needs for recovery and also their longer-term needs for reconstruction.

What really stayed with me from that day was a lady who spent quite a bit of time with us. She was a finance officer in the local government. After we had spent time walking around Leigu, talking about reconstruction and other needs, she shared with us (the tragic fact) that she had lost her seven-year-old daughter in the earthquake. At the time I had a seven-year-old daughter myself. I will never forget that even amid such a personal tragedy, she was working so hard for her community. She was one of those who helped the local government move forward with the recovery.

Q: As an international organization official, how did you coordinate with the local governments or the local people to better implement the World Bank’s program? What is the World Bank’s global experience in helping post-quake reconstruction?

A: I spent a lot of time with my team in the area because the World Bank-financed infrastructure project was part of the national and provincial government support for the reconstruction. We were helping the provincial government in their reconstruction planning and implementation.

The World Bank has provided support for many large earthquake recovery programs around the world: in 1999 in Turkiye, in 2005 in Pakistan, in 2008 in Wenchuan of China and also this year in Turkiye where there has been another large earthquake. The World Bank brings international principles and standards to make sure the reconstruction quality is high and that reconstructed infrastructure will be able to withstand future disasters that may occur.

We also focus on ensuring that reconstruction is conducted in a more inclusive way. We believe it is important to make sure that the needs of the whole population are considered in the recovery with particular attention to the lower-income people and the vulnerable, for example, the elderly and women.

This is important as the priorities for different groups may differ — for example elderly persons who may be displaced from their original home may wish to be close to health clinics and to other people that they know. Whereas young people will have different priorities; their priorities will be staying close to jobs, to be in places where their families can grow. So it is about making sure that all of those things are taken into account in an inclusive way.

Q: May 12 has been observed as the Disaster Prevention and Reduction Day in China since 2009. Why is it important to raise people’s awareness about disaster prevention and reduction?

A: A lot of places in the world are seeing recurrent disasters, in particular, because of climate change. For example, cyclones and flooding are becoming more frequent. In recent years, I’ve been working in southern and eastern Africa. For example, Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, is experiencing flooding and powerful storms about every two years. And this affects not only their agriculture sector, but also energy production. Preparedness really helps to make sure that infrastructure and service provision are strong and sustainable, and that communities can recover quickly from the disaster.

Q: How can disaster-stricken areas better ensure that people do not slide back into poverty?

A: In 15 years, China has made great strides in its disaster prevention and preparedness. When we talk about disaster preparedness, we focus on risks. We analyze the risks of certain locations, of certain activities, and make sure that the activities match the level of risks, to make sure that the local communities are in a position that, if a disaster strikes, they will not be pushed back into poverty. Most important is that there need to be systems in place to ensure the government can get support to communities immediately after a disaster.

Q: You have mentioned that volunteers play an important role in the reconstruction efforts. Did that kind of spirit prompt you to become a volunteer for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games?

A: Volunteers (have) showed how their individual contributions could make a real difference to strangers. We saw this in the reconstruction efforts. As far as the Olympics is concerned, I think that volunteers are very important in that kind of international event. Our role was to provide a bridge between the international spectators and athletes, and the local authorities and the organizers of the Olympics.

I took two weeks of my annual leave to be a volunteer at the Olympics. As “guides” on the site, we helped spectators find the way into and out of stadiums, and helped them solve problems. On duty outside the Bird’s Nest stadium, I never tired of the enormous roaring cheers that erupted from the stadium even at times when I knew there were no Chinese competing.

Q: How do you evaluate China’s green development in its development transformation from quantitative growth to qualitative development over the past decades? For instance, the Chinese path to modernization also promoted harmony between humankind and nature.

A: China has experienced environmental challenges during its development. However, as I returned to China this time, I can certainly see the air pollution issue in Beijing is much improved over even seven or eight years ago.

A green development approach can make sure that China can meet its ambitious climate goals, particularly carbon peaking by 2030, and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, which will be critical for China in the future. The World Bank is working with all levels of governments in China, at the central level but also at the local levels, to help them to translate these goals into real action.

For example, we are supporting several programs to reduce methane and carbon emissions in the agriculture sector by changing farming practices and providing better knowledge and infrastructure for farmers. In addition, we support programs designed to decarbonize industrial sectors as well as infrastructure such as transport and energy. The World Bank is also working with the government on biodiversity to achieve the COP 15 goals agreed last year.

Our work in China helps to make sure China’s environment is healthier and better for the Chinese people, but at the same time also helps China contribute to global public goods.

Q: What are China’s biggest development achievements according to your observation over the past three decades? For instance, what impressed you most when you came to China 30 years ago?

A: I came to China for the first time about 30 years ago. And, in fact, my first impression of China came from arriving at the Guangzhou railway station after having traveled from Hong Kong by train, which was a journey that took three or four hours at the time and now is about 45 minutes.

I remember there was a large plaza in front of the railway station. It was full of people — migrant workers who had come from rural areas to Guangzhou — thousands of people. Coming from Australia, a country with a small population, I had never seen so many people in the same place as I did that day in Guangzhou. Of course, this was also less than two years after Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour” when China’s rural-to-urban migration and China’s industrialization process was just commencing.

Since that time China has had significant success in its economic development and particularly, of course, in alleviating poverty. Those migrant workers and all of the others who became part of China’s industrial development were a critical element of that development.

Q: In 1978, China’s GDP was 367.9 billion yuan. In 1993, China’s GDP was just over 3 trillion yuan. Its GDP surpassed 121 trillion yuan (more than $17 trillion) last year. Why has China been able to achieve such a rapid development? Does China’s development offer some reference for other developing countries, like China’s goal of common prosperity?

A: My personal observation in the last 30 years is that, in general, the quality of life of the population has improved. And I think we see that in many different ways. Children today are clearly healthier and taller than they were 30 years ago because of better nutrition. In the1990s, when I lived in Shandong province, at the beginning of winter even city residents stored cabbages on their balconies — their only vegetables during the cold days.

But things have changed a lot and people have more varieties of food even in winter. People’s housing is also much better and the provision of services to people both in rural areas as well in urban areas has improved. Cities in China are much greener now than they were 30 years ago, because there has been a focus on making sure that cities are more livable, and a recognition that this is important for people’s quality of life. Overall, we see some significant changes and improvements during these 30 years.

However, China’s rapid development has caused environmental impacts. We appreciate China’s focus in the last several years on making sure that development going forward is sustainable. China has had many successful and significant environmental programs such as the Loess Plateau reforestation which was initially supported by the World Bank and then significantly scaled up by the government.

Q: This year marks the 45th anniversary of the launch of the reform and opening-up policy. How do you evaluate the achievements of that policy?

A: The numbers speak for themselves. China’s GDP has increased about 40 times, the per capita income of China has increased almost 30 times during that period, and about 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty. This represents around three quarters of global poverty alleviation during that period. This is a very significant achievement.

I think this was achieved because of China’s focus on both reform and opening-up. The reform promoted investments in physical and human capital at the same time, and also created incentives for good fiscal resource allocation in the economy. Stability of macroeconomic policy was also a very important element during the period.

But the opening-up was also an important factor. International trade was encouraged and grew in tandem with domestic reforms. China has been open to new skills and new ideas coming into the country. And this has also helped to promote development in a sustainable way over these 45 years. This is also where organizations like ours have played a role because we have been working with the government of China now for more than 40 years to bring international ideas and experience to China’s development.

I think these are aspects that have been very important for China’s reform, and will be equally important in the future, in particular, for addressing climate change and other global environmental challenges. It’s important to continue this international exchange as the whole world is grappling with these problems. The World Bank’s program in China is designed to help demonstrate good practices for each of the topics that we work on, including, for example, marine plastics reduction.

The World Bank is engaging quite deeply in the whole East Asia region on the marine plastics agenda. We have a knowledge exchange platform and (provide) technical assistance for many countries in the region, including China. In working with China on this important topic, we are able to connect other countries to China and vice versa, so that they can share knowledge.

Exchange of information between countries is not only to share other countries’ experience with China, but also, very importantly, to share China’s experience with other countries. This exchange is very critical, I think, to make sure that the whole world is able to address these larger questions. Going forward, I would really hope that China maintains a very active and open dialogue with the rest of the world on its achievements and challenges on climate change, the environment, as well as other development challenges.

And I certainly hope that the World Bank will be able to continue to play this facilitation role and continue to not only learn from China, but also support China as it experiments with new policies and new reforms and tries to achieve the goals that have been set.

(First published on China Daily)


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