Pressing issues such as water and food security, health, peace, and poverty are deeply linked to land degradation. We use China’s major land restoration programs as a case offering perspective on the existing problems in China’s major policies for improving degraded land and maintaining land resources in three dimensions. The shortcomings and outcomes in terms of biophysical consequences, socioeconomic benefits, and political goals are addressed, namely (i) non-integrated land resources management creates new problems while solving existing problems, (ii) non-participatory processes and “one-size-fits-all” measures compromise socioeconomic benefits, and (iii) implementation outcomes conflict with policy targets for sustainable land management and development. Based on discussions for more sustainable land management, we conclude that China needs to create a new mode of ‘economy and environment’ in plans and actions of restoring degraded land resources. Establishing multifunctional land-use systems based on formulating and balancing multiple benefits/services across socio-ecological sectors can be an option to achieve such a mode. At the end, recommendations are given for research and implementation that are not only vital for China but also relevant for other regions since the challenges of afforestation and sustainable land development faced in China are not unique.
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