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Nanjing residents fight against removing signature plane trees for metro lines, Jiangsu, China


Nanjing is a city filled with iconic, jumbo plane trees (in Chinese, wutong). The plane trees were introduced in China by the French in the late 1800s or early 1900s to adorn their settlement in Shanghai. [1] Then in the late 1920s, more than 20,000 saplings were planted along Zhongshan Avenue, a road leading to the mausoleum of the anti-imperialist leader Sun Yat-sen, revered as the father of modern China. By the 1960s, it is reported that there were an estimated 200,000 such trees in Nanjing. [2] [3] The green Platanus of the plane trees have become a signature of the city. Wutongs are said as supertrees by horticulturists and city planners because they are immune to urban grime and smog.[4] And they became not just a symbol of Nanjing’s graceful beauty, but of its civic philosophy. China’s capital through multiple dynasties, Nanjing regards itself as a cultural haven. Its urban plan touts the city’s integration with mountains, rivers, and trees. According to Nanjing citizens, “They keep the whole city cool”, “The people of Nanjing grew up together with these trees,” “There is so much emotional attachment to them.” [1]

That did not shield them from the onslaught of development. Since the 1990s, Nanjing’s plane trees have been removed en masse to make way for urban construction projects. In 1993, more than 3000 were felled to make way for the Shanghai-Nanjing Expressway; similarly, about 200 more were removed to build Nanjing Subway Line Two in 2006. [5][6]

In March 2011, planned massive removal of trees, due to the construction of Nanjing Metro Line 3, provoked a strong opposition movement. According to the removal plan, more than 1,000 trees — mostly wutong — would be beheaded, uprooted and plunked down elsewhere to make space for six above-ground stations of Line 3 in the city center. The planned metro lines (mainly Line 3 and Line 10) were part of the infrastructure plan to improve public transportation in advance of the 2014 Youth Olympic plans. [5]

On 1 March 2011, Yangtse Evening Post reported that dozens of wutong trees at the cross of Zhongshan East Road and Taiping North Road were damaged, more and more Weibo users forwarded the report and the pictures with ignited anger. [7] On March 9, the photos were sent to Huang Jianxiang, a famous Nanjing-born sports commentator formerly employed by CCTV, who has millions of followers on Weibo. Huang passed the information to other celebrities who had lived in Nanjing, including film director Lu Chuan, hosts of television shows like Le Jia and Meng Fei, and film stars such as Yao Chen and Zhao Wei with high degrees of publicity. As celebrities posted and shared the photographs, it launched a nationwide explosion of public opinion.  [8][9]

The Nanjing Municipal government has responded to the criticisms by expressing regret, but saying the removal was an 'unavoidable' consequence of constructing the subway. [10] And originally, the number of affected trees was yet higher: 2,600 were to be moved before discussions with subway authorities prompted a re-think. [9] The local authorities explained that the trees were not being felled, but rather moved for replanting. However, journalists, experts, and NGOs articulated persuasive narratives and offered an alternative perspective from the government’s, based on investigations and research. Zhu Fulin, a reporter for Nanjing Morning Post, and Cai Jianhua, a researcher from the Institute of Botany, traced what had happened to trees that had already been replanted five years ago from another construction project. They found that 80% of the trees had died after being replanted—and they broadcast this information, challenging the government’s promise that the replanted trees were still healthy. Environmental NGOs, Friends of Nature and Nanjing Green Stone, not only launched awareness campaigns but also organized activities, and worked cooperatively with media personalities, which allowed them to better coordinate their campaigns with stronger supporting data and evidence. [5] 

On 14 March, a schoolteacher organized students to tie green ribbons around some untouched trees. [6] Petition letters were also addressed to the Municipal Government, some posters with the slogan “Love my old capital. Protect the plane trees”, and various catchphrases with shocking photos were spread by drivers and other activists, further amplifying the issue. Taiwan’s legislator Qiu Yi, who was also a member of the Kuomintang (KMT)’s Central Standing Committee (CSC), had heard about the tree situation through Weibo and adopted several means to oppose the plan. Facing pressure from both the online masses and Taiwan’s leadership, on March 15 the city government finally responded, saying it would improve plans to protect the trees. A subsequent press release from the Nanjing government indicated little had been done to quell concerns. On 17 March, Qiu Yi proposed to the KMT standing committee that the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits and the Straits Exchange Foundation (the bodies set up by China and Taiwan to handle technical or business matters between the two sides) be used to deal with the issue. He framed protecting plane trees as respecting the collective history of “Chinese compatriots on both sides of the Strait”, suggesting that the KMT could express concerns through different channels. He directly phoned Nanjing’s mayor Ji Jianye and the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of Nanjing’s municipal government. Overall, KMT’s participation politically amplified the issue as potentially negatively affecting the cross-Strait relations, which was especially concerning in the centennial year of the Xinhai Revolution. [11] [8]

Nevertheless, according to the Southern Weekly, the construction of Nanjing Metro Line 3 has not involved the same degree of consultation or publication of information as of Line 2, public anger remained strong and an online call to gather in the square of the city’s library was set for 19 March. [9] Some government authorities, including the Public Security Bureau and the top leaders of the city, were worried about social stability. The municipal government stopped the tree removal work on late 17 March and announced the decision publicly. [12] The municipal government published an official document announcing all the plans and constructions should take the protection of old trees as a non-negotiable. [13] Two-thirds of the trees originally to be removed were saved because of Nanjing citizens’ various forms of peaceful contention. [14] Hundreds of residents still responded to the call to gather in the square of the city’s library, which was generally a peaceful protest despite the arrival of large numbers of public security personnel. [3]

On 22 March, Nanjing decided to adopt a “green assessment” system, the first in China, and the Metro Line 3 project was a pilot of the new assessment. [15] The protest against the removal of plane trees and the “green assessment” was later recognized as a great legacy for the city. [16]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Nanjing residents fight against removing signature plane trees for metro lines, Jiangsu, China
State or province:Jiangsu province
Location of conflict:Cross at Zhongshan East Road and Taiping North Road (Daxinggong Station), Central Nanjing City
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biodiversity conservation conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Urban development conflicts
Logging and non timber extraction
Specific commodities:Ecosystem Services
transportation services

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Line 3 is a north-south line on the Nanjing Metro that opened on April 1, 2015, running from Mozhou­donglu to Linchang. Currently, the line contains 29 stations spanning a total of 44.1 kilometres (27.4 mi). Between Nanjing South Railway Station and Nanjing Railway Station, it runs parallel to Line 1. It was planned in 2005 and the whole project was approved by the National Development and Reform Commission in October 2009. The preliminary construction and preparation works started from early 2010 and the construction work of the whole line was commenced on 1 March 2011. Line 3 started its operation on 1 April 2015, while the EIA of an expansion phase of Line 3 just got approved in 2019. [17]

Note that this entry refers to only those project aspects that required removing the trees, not the construction of the entire metro line itself.

The affected population is an estimation from the statistics of the demography of Nanjing urban residents in 2011.

Level of Investment:unknown
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:6 million
Start of the conflict:01/03/2011
End of the conflict:22/03/2011
Relevant government actors:- The Nanjing Municipal government
- KMT’s Central Standing Committee (CSC) in Taiwan
- Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits and the Straits Exchange Foundation
- the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of Nanjing Municipal Government
- the Public Security Bureau of Nanjing City
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:- Zhu Fulin, a reporter for Nanjing Morning Post, and Cai Jianhua, a researcher from the Institute of Botany
- Friends of Nature
- Nanjing Green Stone
- Huang Jianxiang, a famous Nanjing-born sports commentator formerly employed by CCTV,
- film director Lu Chuan
- hosts of television shows like Le Jia and Meng Fei
- film stars such as Yao Chen and Zhao Wei

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
journalists, celebrities
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Arguments for the rights of mother nature


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Air pollution, Noise pollution
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Loss of landscape/sense of place


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Institutional changes
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
Project cancelled
Note that "project stopped/cancelled" refers here to the halt of felling the trees, not the metro line
Development of alternatives:(Note that "project stopped" refers here to the cancellation of tree felling, not the metro line)
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:This is a significant success as the Nanjing Municipal Government stopped the removal of plane trees, and new legislation of “green assessment” was introduced into the construction projects of the city. During the process, the majority of residents in the city were mobilized, more and more people recognized the cultural and ecological value of the plane trees to the city.

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

[13] Nanjing Municipal Government, Jiangsu Province. Municipal Government’s Ideas on Further Enhancing the Protection of City’s Old and Precious Trees and Big Street Trees. 市政府关于进一步加强城市古树名木及行道大树保护的意见, March 17, 2011.

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[14]Steinhardt, H. C., & Wu, F. (2016). In the name of the public: environmental protest and the changing landscape of popular contention in China. The China Journal, 75(1), 61-82.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[1] Nanjing residents fight to save their plane trees

[5] 三联生活周刊:南京为地铁移植梧桐树引争议 市民称是城市名片

[2] 百度百科:南京梧桐树事件(accessed on 2020-03-10)

[6] New York Times: A Grass-Roots Fight to Save a ‘Supertree’(accessed on 2020-03-11)


[12] 新闻晚报:南京尊重民意 暂停移走梧桐

[15] 新华网:南京出台护绿五大举措 重大工程须做“绿评”

[16] 扬子晚报:“绿都”常绿,离不开市民较真官方认真

[2] 百度百科:南京梧桐树事件

[3] 潇湘晨报:你离开了南京,从此没有人和我说话(accessed on 2020-03-11)

[9] Chinadialogue: The battle for Nanjing’s trees(accessed on 2020-03-11)

[9] Chinadialogue: The battle for Nanjing’s trees

[17]百度百科:南京地铁3号线(accessed on 2020-03-10)

[10] Protests planned in Nanjing as historic trees are cleared for subway

[1] Nanjing residents fight to save their plane trees (accessed on 2020-03-11)

[3] 潇湘晨报:你离开了南京,从此没有人和我说话

[4] [World report] The case of Nanjing in China – The importance of shady roadside trees

[5] 三联生活周刊:南京为地铁移植梧桐树引争议 市民称是城市名片(accessed on 2020-03-11)

[6] New York Times: A Grass-Roots Fight to Save a ‘Supertree’

[7] 南京40多棵行道树被剃光头为地铁线让道(图)(accessed on 2020-03-11)

[7] 南京40多棵行道树被剃光头为地铁线让道(图)


[11] 中外对话:南京梧桐激起民间保树运动

[12] 新闻晚报:南京尊重民意 暂停移走梧桐 (accessed on 2020-03-11)

[16] 扬子晚报:“绿都”常绿,离不开市民较真官方认真 (accessed on 2020-03-15)

[18]南京"梧桐树为地铁让路"风波调查 市政府正面回应

[10] Protests planned in Nanjing as historic trees are cleared for subway(accessed on 2020-03-11)

[15] 新华网:南京出台护绿五大举措 重大工程须做“绿评” (accessed on 2020-03-11)

[11] 中外对话:南京梧桐激起民间保树运动(accessed on 2020-03-11)

[18]南京"梧桐树为地铁让路"风波调查 市政府正面回应 (accessed on 2020-03-15)

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

南京为建地铁移植百年梧桐树引市民争议(accessed on 2020-03-10)


Meta information

Contributor:EnvJustice, ICTA-UAB
Last update23/03/2020



Plane trees as a signature of Nanjing City [5]


Street view of Xinjiekou, Nanjing under the shadow of the plane trees, 1956 [5]


Headed plane trees [7]


Plane trees fallen down and to be removed [18]