China has responded to a national land-system sustainability emergency via an integrated portfolio of large-scale programmes. Here we review 16 sustainability programmes, which invested US$378.5 billion (in 2015 US$), covered 623.9 million hectares of land and involved over 500 million people, mostly since 1998. We find overwhelmingly that the interventions improved the sustainability of China’s rural land systems, but the impacts are nuanced and adverse outcomes have occurred. We identify some key characteristics of programme success, potential risks to their durability, and future research needs. We suggest directions for China and other nations as they progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations’ Agenda 2030.

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This work was supported by a Climate Change Engagement Grant from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as well as by our own institutions, in particular Deakin University. We thank M. Klaassen, D. Driscoll, J. G. Canadell and B. Huang for comments on the manuscript. This work contributes to both the Future Earth and Global Land Programme research agendas.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks R. Costanza, F. Zhang and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information

Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: Yanqiong Ye, Xiufeng Sun


  1. Centre for Integrative Ecology, Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria, Australia

    • Brett A. Bryan
  2. CSIRO, Waite Campus, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

    • Brett A. Bryan
    • , Lei Gao
    • , Yanqiong Ye
    • , Xiufeng Sun
    • , Jeffery D. Connor
    •  & Neville D. Crossman
  3. College of Natural Resources and Environment, South China Agricultural University, Guangzhou, China

    • Yanqiong Ye
  4. College of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Southwest University, Chongqing, China

    • Xiufeng Sun
  5. School of Commerce, City West Campus, University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

    • Jeffery D. Connor
  6. School of Biological Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

    • Neville D. Crossman
  7. CSIRO, Black Mountain, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

    • Mark Stafford-Smith
  8. Center for Human-Environment System Sustainability (CHESS), State Key Laboratory of Earth Surface Processes and Resource Ecology, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China

    • Jianguo Wu
    • , Chunyang He
    • , Deyong Yu
    • , Zhifeng Liu
    •  & Qingxu Huang
  9. School of Life Sciences and School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA

    • Jianguo Wu
  10. State Key Laboratory of Vegetation and Environmental Change, Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Ang Li
  11. Key Laboratory of Vegetation Restoration and Management of Degraded Ecosystems, South China Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou, China

    • Hai Ren
  12. Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Xiangzheng Deng
  13. State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

    • Hua Zheng
  14. School of Ecology and Environment, Inner Mongolia University, Hohhot, China

    • Jianming Niu
  15. College of Ecology and Environmental Science, Inner Mongolia Agricultural University, Hohhot, China

    • Guodong Han
  16. National Forage Improvement Center, Key Laboratory of Grassland Resources and Utilization of Ministry of Agriculture, Institute of Grassland Research, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Hohhot, China

    • Xiangyang Hou


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B.A.B. designed the study and wrote the paper. L.G., Y.Y., and X.S. contributed to the writing, assembled the data and photographs, prepared the graphs, and assembled the Supplementary Information. All authors made substantive intellectual contributions to the paper and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brett A. Bryan.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    This file includes Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables 1 – 21 and Supplementary Figure 1. The Supplementary Tables document the details of each of the 16 major sustainability programmes reviewed (Tables 1–16), data sources for programme review (Table 17) and the rationale for mapping programme investment to SDGs (Table 18), as well as investment (Table 19) and area (Table 20) data and graphs including a breakdown by province, and area data and graphs including a breakdown by on-ground action (Table 21). Also included are additional references not cited in the main text.

  2. Supplementary Data 1

    This file contains investment data and graphs including a breakdown by Province.

  3. Supplementary Data 2

    This file contains area data and graphs including a breakdown by Province.

  4. Supplementary Data 3

    This file contains area data and graphs including a breakdown by on-ground action.

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