Around 600 participants from governments, academia and businesses across China and internationally gathered together in Beijing to discuss accelerating progress against the United Nations Global Goals for Sustainable Development (Global Goals). The conference also hosted the launch of China’s most recent report on its own progress in achieving the goals.
IDS Director Professor Melissa Leach, attended the conference to chair a panel session on the role of think tanks and civil society in realising the goals – in terms of contributing to a transformative research and knowledge agenda that informs and inspires action, identifying synergies between the 17 goals and promoting mutual learning and exchange.
The role of think tanks is growing within China, with Chinese universities establishing development-focused institutes and the establishment of new think tanks such as the Center for International Knowledge on Development (CIKD). Established in 2017, CIKD is affiliated to China’s State Council Development Research Centre and has a strong partnership with IDS. CIKD’s hosting of the SDG Forum coincided with the opening of its new building and several further SDG-related initiatives including a business partnership and a an ‘SDG Theme Park’ for wider public engagement.
China’s achievements and challenges in meeting the Global Goals
China’s progress report acknowledges some major achievements, especially in the areas of poverty reduction, health and environment, but also recognises that much more work needs to be done to tackle inequalities including gender inequality. However, as with discussions at national and international levels elsewhere, there was little focus on the tensions that exist between the goals. So for example, China claims significant progress in terms of ecosystem restoration, especially through the rapid roll-out of its distinctive zoning policy through ‘ecological red lines’, yet there is little acknowledgement of how the regulation and removal of people’s activities within these zones will be handled to avoid compromising goals on equality and inclusion. There is also little said on minority rights, where issues in China, such as the treatment of Uighur people in Xinjiang, are in direct contradiction to the central ‘leave no-one behind’ ambition of the goals.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative and sustainable development
Both the report and the forum more generally explored how China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a far-reaching global partnership could be leveraged to achieve sustainable development outcomes. Numerous opportunities in terms of the scale of the finance and resources were highlighted but less spoken about were the challenges and social, political and environmental risks associated with the BRI. One such risk drawn out by a couple of international speakers was China’s investment in coal-fired power stations in BRI countries. These challenges and risks, alongside the opportunities, are discussed in more detail in a forthcoming issue of the IDS Bulletin, The Belt and Road Initiative and the SDGs: Towards Equitable Sustainable Development which was informed by a high-level event held at Wilton Park earlier in 2019.
In discussions around the BRI, China’s strong desire for international partnerships in the delivery of the Global Goals was clear. They largely see these partnerships in terms of connectivity through BRI and digital technology and the investments that China can make elsewhere. Yet there is scope for these partnerships to be further extended so they promote and facilitate the mutual learning which is critical to achieving the Global Goals. This is something IDS has been, and continues to explore in its ongoing work with Chinese partners such as CIKD, the China International Development Research Network (CIDRN), the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the China National Health Development Research Centre (CNHDRC)