Central government lays down the law over illegally built mountainside villas in Shaanxi

By Li Lei Source:Global Times Published: 2018/11/22 19:24:27

The central government has forced local officials to demolish illegal mountain villas

Local officials had a hand in their construction, despite central government orders

The demolition is a high-profile example of the central government protecting the environment in the face of local corruption

Staff from local authorities watch the demolition of illegal villas built in Qinling, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province on October 27, 2014. Photo: VCG

Zhang Chun'e (pseudonym) did not know her farmland would become the root of a corruption case when it was sold to a property developer 15 years ago.

She lives in Jiangnan village, a 40-minute drive away from downtown Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, on the north side of the Qinling Mountain.

The Qinling Mountain played an important role in the formation and evolution of China's physical geography. It is the North-South divide, as well as a major habitat of rare animals such as pandas, snub-nosed monkeys, and crested ibis.

Zhang, 64, has been living in the village since she got married 40 years ago. The major source of income for her family was the crops grown in the terraced field right next to the village.

However, 15 years ago, the field her family relied on for living was sold to a real estate developer. Each member of her family received a "subsidy" of 10,000 yuan ($1,450). The developer received  more than 66,000 square meters of farm land.

A year later, a grand compound with fancy villas was built on the mountainside. This compound is not unique.

"Drive along the road under the mountain, you can see these compounds everywhere," a local official told the Global Times.

"But starting this summer, some villas have been demolished," Zhang told the Global Times.

Aerial view of the illegal villas built in Qinling Mountain Photo: VCG

Origins of illegal villas

As of October 28, a total of 729 illegal buildings on an area of 790,000 square meters on the north hill of the Qinling Mountain in Chang'an district have been demolished, including 371 villas. A total of 1,036 illegal buildings on an area of 520,000 square meters have been torn down in neighboring Huyi district, including 844 illegally built villas, China Economic Weekly reported.

"It was initially an individual behavior to build villas in the piedmont area of Qinling Mountain, starting in 1997," Wen Shang, who runs a local real-estate company, told the China Economic Weekly.

"Rich people from the city purchased land in the mountain village as part of their lifestyle. It is illegal to buy residential land in rural areas, but more people choose to follow suit," Wen said. "Real-estate developers have been building villas in this area since 2002."

As early as 2003, the Shaanxi provincial government had issued a notice prohibiting companies and individuals from building commercial residences and private villas. The government reiterated the regulation in 2007.

In March of 2008, the government released stricter regulations to control real estate development in the north piedmont of Qinling Mountain.

The regulations were amended on January 5, 2017, to ban all forms of real estate development.

The city government of Xi'an also set up an office for ecological and environmental protection on Qinling Mountain. The office introduced regulations aimed at protecting the environment and ecology of the mountain.

Despite stringent regulations and instructions from the central government, more private villas are still erected every year.

"Last winter, 10 villas were built in the compound next to the village, and they were demolished this summer," Zhang Chun'e told the Global Times

Zhang Peng, a local agricultural program developer, said a defect exists in the regulations released by the provincial government in 2008.

"It fails to specify the north piedmont of Qinling Mountain. Instead, it categorizes the mountain into three parts: non-development areas, limited development areas and moderate development areas, based on different altitudes," said Zhang, according to the China Economic Weekly.

He said the government should be responsible for these illegal buildings, because the office set up by the Xi'an city government had allowed commercial development in the controlled area for a period of time.

In 2003, the city government still attracted investment for cultural and tourism projects at the foot of the mountain, despite the multiple regulations that had been released, said Zhang.

"After the money came in, merchants managed to turn land for tourism projects into real-estate developments, because real estate is more profitable than tourism projects, and this is how tourist attractions became villas," Zhang recalled.

"In 2008, the city government decided to keep more than 20 villa projects and added another 20 or 30 projects to the list, making 55 villa projects legal. These were deemed illegal and ordered demolished this year," Zhang added.

Li Zuojun, deputy director of the resources and environment policy institute of the Development Research Center of the State Council, told the Global Times that the extensive villa construction causes severe damage to the ecology of the Qinling Mountain area.

"Human activities after the completion of the villas causes pollution and damage to the environment, and impacts biodiversity in the area," Li said. "Wild animals' authentic living habitat and migration routes are changed by human activities."

A reporter from the Global Times saw that the illegal villas that have been demolished have been covered by green grass, and a compound has been reconstructed into a natural park which will be open to public by the end of the year.

"Although returning the land to nature can stop pollution and damage to the environment, it takes a very long time for the environment to recover from the construction," said Li.

Political ecology

Among these illegal villas, the biggest and most notorious one is a super-large villa in Caijiapo village of Huyi district under the possession of Chen Lu.

According to Xinhua, in August of 2005, Chen Lu and Zhi Liang signed a land lease contract with the village to rent 10,000 square meters for 70 years in the name of landscaping construction, and started illegal building at the end of the year.

In August 2008, the villa took shape. It occupied 9,280 square meters, with a 517-square meter concrete building, two fish ponds, a doghouse and three other buildings, a local TV station reported.

Details about Chen remain unknown, but canjing.com.cn reported that Chen's father was a senior official of the Shaanxi provincial government.

In July, the central government sent a special rectification team headed by Xu Lingyi, the deputy head of the Communist Party of China Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission.

Xu asserted that the illegal construction of these villas at the north side of the Qinling Mountain is a political issue, local media reported.

On November 1, Qian Yin'an, a senior official in Shaanxi Province, was investigated for suspected serious violations of Party disciplinary rules and laws, according to the top anti-graft agency.

On November 5, Shangguan Jiqing resigned from the post of Xi'an mayor.

Wei Minzhou, the former municipal Party secretary of Xi'an and former senior legislator from Shaanxi Province, was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday for taking bribes of 100 million yuan. One of the bribes reportedly was a villa in the Qinling Mountain.

"The sacking of these senior local officials is closely related with the illegal construction in Qinling Mountain," Zhuang Deshui, deputy director of the Research Center for Government Integrity-Building at Peking University, told the Global Times.

"Some of the officials are blamed for failing to implement the central government's orders, while some officials participated in the illegal business themselves," added Zhuang.

"Self-inspect comprehensively and self-examine thoroughly," Hu Heping, chief of the Shaanxi Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, said in a report meeting on the special rectification of the illegal villas at the north piedmont of the Qinling Mountain on November 15.

Before the local government's declaration, the General Office of the CPC Central Committee, briefed on the handling of the illegal villas, blamed the local Party committees for a severe violation of political discipline.

A resident in Yulin, Shaanxi Province informed anti-corruption authorities about a local governmental official receiving 1 million yuan from real estate companies in August 2015. Photo: VCG

Focus on environment

Zhuang believes the solution the central government has offered to rectify the illegal construction in Qinling demonstrates that the country is attaching an unprecedented importance to environmental protection.

"With the principle that 'lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets,' China has attached more significance to environmental protection amid high-speed economic development. Meanwhile, China is also focusing on fighting against corruption in environmental issues."

"The central government's resolute investigation and punishment is an example for anti-corruption work in other places to follow," said Zhuang.

According to Zhuang, the reason behind China's hard-core environment issues is the corruption in many local governments. "The reason why China's environmental problems recur and are hard to rectify is the collusion between local officials and unscrupulous businessmen."

"Clean politics is helpful to a clean environment," said Zhuang.

Chen's super-large villa was demolished on September 29, and the land was planted with grass on October 15, thepaper.cn reported in October.



Newspaper headline: Green mountain

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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