Academic Publication

Sustained sustainable development actions of China from 1986 to 2020

Bingsheng Liu
Tao Wang
Jiaming Zhang
Xiaoming Wang
Yuan Chang
Dongping Fang
Mengjun Yang
Xinzhang Sun
Scientific Reports
Publication Year:
  • SDG 1 - No Poverty
  • SDG 2 - Zero Hunger
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 5 - Gender Equality
  • SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation
  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
  • SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a long-term task, which puts forward high requirements on the sustainability of related policies and actions. Using the text analysis method, we analyze the China National Sustainable Communities (CNSCs) policy implemented over 30 years and its effects on achieving SDGs. We find that the national government needs to understand the scope of sustainable development more comprehensively, the sustained actions can produce positive effects under the right goals. The SDGs selection of local governments is affected by local development levels and resource conditions, regions with better economic foundations tend to focus on SDGs on human well-being, regions with weaker foundations show priority to basic SDGs on the economic development, infrastructures and industrialization.


In 2015, 193 countries of the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in New York1, which has become the program for most countries around the world to implement sustainable development. However, the SDG Summit in 2019 pointed out that the world was not on track to achieving the SDGs by 2030, and global progress in some areas of sustainable development had either stagnated or been reversed2. The COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 has evolved into global public health and economic crisis, which has had severe negative impacts on most SDGs. And poor countries and vulnerable groups will be hit hardest in the long run3. Although many countries are developing and implementing policies to support sustainable development, new policies often bear the significant mark of the current government. It is a common phenomenon that national policies and strategies change with changes in government or leadership; for example, different governments in the United States and Australia have distinct attitudes towards climate change response policies aimed at SDG13 4. Policy instability or “mobilized governance” will lead to a negative effect on sustainable development5,6,7,8, and maintaining the “sustainability” of sustainable development policy itself is the premise for achieving SDGs.

Existing studies about SDGs can be mainly categorized into two groups:

One group of research is debating on the scientific rationality of SDGs. Some researchers believe that the SDGs reflect the ideology of Anthropocentrism, which is intertwined with the practice of industrialization and the ideology of economic growth9,10. Sam Adelman argued that the SDGs promoted a weak, anthropocentric form of sustainable development that ignored ecological reality and continued to prioritize economic growth above social justice and environmental protection11. Undeniably, the majority of sustainable development models still suffer from ‘an insufficiently developed theoretical framework’12, but with the deepening of the theoretical research, the concept of environmental limit, carrying capacity, and planetary boundaries have been gradually fulfilled. For instance, some studies maintain that the SDGs should be integrated with the planetary boundaries so as to pursue the prosperity of human society within the limits of natural capital13. Holden et al. proposed a three-imperatives model for sustainable development including satisfying human needs, ensuring social equity, and respecting environmental limits, and highlighted the equally essential role of the three imperatives14. Comparatively, economic growth was just a potential means to fulfill primary dimensions, rather than a primary dimension of sustainable development14,15.

The other research cluster primarily focuses on assessing the trade-offs and synergies between SDGs16,17,18. For example, researchers have identified the prominent trade-offs between SDG12 and other SDGs, while extensive synergies between SDG3 and other goals have also been recognized18. Despite the overlaps and conflicts among SDGs, researchers had proved that the holistic way of thinking and the network attribute of SDGs would secure better outcomes for each goal. The SDGs network may not be completely self-consistent from a mathematical perspective, but targeted direct efforts and policies are able to maximize the benefit of SDGs under complex reality constraint19. Crist et al. also maintained that, although the social and economic development level vary enormously across countries, policy and regulation are priority tools for each country to leverage so as to guide population change toward an ecologically and socially sustainable direction20. Therefore, it is quite essential to assess the effect of sustained policies on achieving SDGs.

Much have done about assessing the progress and current conditions of all 17 SDGs21,22,23, however, research on stable sustainable development policy for an extended period and its implementation is lacking, and the characteristics of sustainable development actions over a longtime span remain to be disclosed. The policy of the China National Sustainable Communities (CNSCs) led by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) has been implemented since 1986 and has become the experiments and demonstrations of innovation-driven sustainable development24,25. The policy has been implemented by four generations of state leaders for more than 30 years, which can be regarded as sustained sustainable development actions. Through January 2020, there have been 189 sustainable communities distributed widely in eastern, central and western China, covering cities with different natural environments, resource endowments and economic levels. Therefore, studying the effect of the CNSCs policy on the achievement of SDGs will be of reference significance for the implementation of sustainable development in different countries around the world.

The effect of long-term policies could be evaluated by several quantitative modeling approaches, such as general equilibrium model26, difference-in-difference model27, and input–output model28,29. However, these methods have high data requirements, which are usually difficult to satisfy by existing statistical system of a nation or city. The text analysis (TA) is an alternative approach to extracting the insight of texts (i.e., policy documents, reports, and the literature in a particular filed) and their objectives30, and has been widely used in policy analyses: (1) TA is used to define a certain concept or clarify the concept’s origin, rationale, and development state31; (2) the method is employed to identify specific actions in policy implementation, so as to find the critical factors or practices to policy success32,33,34,35,36; and (3) TA is applicable to evaluating policy performance and status quo37,38. Compared with other quantitative methods, TA has the following advantages: first, the text materials related to policy formulation and implementation are easier to obtain; second, the analysis process is simple and reversible; third, the dynamic process and details of policy implementation can be reflected, enabling policy makers to summarize useful experience.

This study applies the TA method to illustrate the construction process and achievements of CNSCs from the spatiotemporal dimension, focusing on questions about three aspects: (a) the SDGs that the sustainable communities prefer; (b) the spatiotemporal changing trend of these sustainable communities since 1986 and the sustainability of the policy; (c) the performance of sustainable communities and the effect of the CNSCs policy on achieving SDGs. To answer these questions, we applied data from the evaluation for 189 sustainable communities in 2018 by the MOST. The construction themes and attainments were extracted, sorted and mapped to the 17 SDGs and 169 targets. Then, the spatiotemporal analysis was carried out to find the relationship between the action themes and factors in politics, regions, economy, society and environment and draw some conclusions.


The distribution of sustainable communities

China constructed a total of 21 batches of 189 CNSCs from 1986 to 2015, covering 31 provinces (Fig. 1a). The cities, districts, counties and townships accounted for 15%, 34%, 48% and 3% of the CNSCs, respectively; the number of CNSCs in eastern coastal areas was the greatest, and it was followed by the number in the central provinces, with the lowest number in the western provinces. The number of CNSCs increased significantly after 2008 (Fig. 1b), showing that the Chinese government has fully enforced the construction of CNSCs for more than 30 years and attached more importance since 2008. The government initially established these sustainable communities in the eastern region, where the economic development pace is faster, and then they expanded into the central and western regions; now, the ratio of the number in eastern, central and western regions is 5:3:2, respectively, which reflects that China has gradually strengthened the regional equality in the process of policy implementation. In 2015, the UN convened the Development Summit and adopted the 2030 Agenda. In response, China suspended the construction of CNSCs and switched to the Innovation Demonstration Zones for Implementing the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development (IDZSDs), which were based on prefecture-level cities. After two years of planning and preparation, China identified 2 batches of 6 innovation demonstration zones in 2018 and 2019, uniformly distributed in the eastern, central and western regions, and more than half of the IDZSDs are small cities with relatively low economic level but good development experience.


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