Chinese villages and their sustainable future: the European Union-China-Research Project "SUCCESS"

Heidi Dumreicher
Journal of Environmental Management 2008, 87 (2): 204-15
China has 800,000 villages-one person out of seven on the globe is living in a Chinese rural settlement. Yet the global discussions about the situation in China is currently characterised by a disproportionate focus on the development of towns and until now circumstances have generally been neglected in the rural areas, where 70% of the Chinese population is still living. Within the 5 years of the SUCCESS project research, this set of actual problems has been considered and analysed under the principle of sustainability: "What to maintain?" "What to change?" were the overall research questions asked in the SUCCESS project; the researchers were looking for answers under a sustainability regime, respecting the need to raise the quality of life in the villages. Several interweaving processes were used to achieve results: the inter-disciplinary research process between many areas of expertise, the trans-disciplinary process between the researchers and the Chinese villagers, and a negotiation process that made the connection between these two processes. The introduction describes the basic sustainability definition that was orienting the whole study. The innovation lays mostly in the methodology: the inter-disciplinary research co-operation related to practice and to involving the affected communities is needed to manage the significant and growing imbalances between urban and rural areas regarding their sustainability. In the transdisciplinary work, the project developed "village future sentences" that describe the local outcome of the research as one step towards better theoretical understanding of the mechanisms that could lead to a sustainable future, and they also managed to start sustainability processes in the case study sites. The integrated approach of the project helped generating future scenarios for these villages covering all aspects of their development, including urban design issues. Out of these scenarios, the villages developed small projects that could be implemented during the research period. This work made an important impact on community thinking within these villages. However, it can also be seen as contributing to the dramatically changing development process in China, by finding a balance between traditional and contemporary approaches. In particular, the approach demonstrated a new, inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary negotiation processes whereby the local knowledge and the expert knowledge find common ground and outcomes. The article follows the hypothesis that only comprehensive concepts can contribute to an upgraded living standard, where living spaces and rural life should be recognised and esteemed in the future as a complement to urban lifestyles within the Chinese society. Innovative knowledge generation-such as the "systemic structure constellation" technique or the systems model approach-helped to bring out latent needs, hopes and potential of the villagers. Besides the practical usage of these implemented projects, the process leading there showed the stakeholders their own fields of action. One major impact of these projects is the visibility of the results, which is crucial for villagers' awareness, their self-confidence and their experience with a successful participation in decision-making processes. Another impact is the potential for replicating results of sustainability-oriented patterns throughout China, especially as three of the villages have been nominated official model villages. Scenarios of a sustainable future for Chinese villages were the objective of the SUCCESS project. The first condition for this future is the question whether they can persist into the future-and to picture the importance of the rural environment and living space as a relevant element of Chinese life that needs to get a better image and more attention from the authorities and from the public opinion. Therefore, the final sentence that the whole research consortium, composed of 17 scientific institutions from European Union and China, agreed upon as a common result for the SUCCESS project, is as follows: "China is composed of a rich diversity of villages with many attractive qualities and essential resources for the future growth of the whole country; we recommend that policy makers cherish the human and natural potential of the rural economy and environment so that villages provide the foundation for sustainable development of this progressive nation" [Dumreicher, H., 2006. SUCCESS-a sustainable future for Chinese villages. International Symposium "Chinese Villages and their Sustainable Future", University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, Vienna, January 16]. This sentence was used in papers that where sent to different Chinese authorities by the Chinese partners and found its way, as a sort of "unofficial Charta", towards governmental agencies at national and provincial levels. The team carried out a 5-year-research study in rural China, aiming at establishing future images under the premises of sustainability. But the basic topic that needed to be tackled with was the question whether at all those villages could persist in the coming decades of rapid development. Therefore, the first aim of the study was to establish the importance of the rural environment and living space as a basis for the future of China.

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