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China pollution

China puts a stop to commercial land reclamation after damning environment reports

But key defence and infrastructure projects still likely to get green light

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 10:24pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 10:57pm

China will not approve any new commercial land reclamation initiated by local authorities this year, but key defence and infrastructure projects planned by the central government are likely to get the go-ahead.

The State Oceanic Administration said it would in principle stop approving “regular” reclamation projects in 2018, state-run Legal Daily reported on Monday.

Instead, the annual land reclamation quota would be mostly reserved for “major construction, public infrastructure, public services and national defence”, the report said.

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The decision comes after the central government criticised local authorities for lax supervision on land reclamation that has led to severe damage of the marine ecosystem.

President Xi Jinping has made environmental protection a priority amid rising public discontent over chronic and widespread pollution problems stemming from decades of unbridled economic growth.

The report said the regulator had suspended six projects last year – four of them in the Bohai Sea – in its “strictest ever crackdown” on land reclamation.

China reclaimed some 11,100 hectares of land in 2015, according to the latest government data.

Tao Jianhua, a marine environment expert at Tianjin University, said it was often cheaper for local governments in China to reclaim land than to obtain rights to land.

He said the tighter restrictions could not reverse the environmental damage caused by huge reclamation works in the past decades.

“It’s too late,” Tao said. “But it is a necessary step to stop those who are still looking ... to develop by reclaiming land.”

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After a nationwide environmental inspection last year, a number of coastal provinces were accused of lax supervision in granting reclamation projects.

In a report on the southern resort island of Hainan, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said land reclamation projects had been approved that ended up damaging fragile coral reefs and the coastal ecosystem.

Among the projects singled out for criticism were Ocean Flower Island, a 160 billion yuan (US$24.5 billion) man-made island developed by China Evergrande, and Sun Moon Bay, another reclamation project backed by Sunac China.

The ministry in December also accused the eastern coastal provinces of Shandong and Zhejiang of approving land reclamation in violation of state regulations.

Earlier last year, the regulator ordered a halt to construction of a 100 billion yuan airport on an artificial island off the coast of Sanya, Hainan because of environmental concerns.

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But reclamation for national defence is not included in the restrictions. China continued expanding its artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea last year, completing new facilities that cover about 290,000 square metres, People’s Daily reported in December.

China started land reclamation in the disputed waters in 2013 and has rapidly built reefs into seven man-made islands in the Spratlys, an effort state media have said Xi personally ordered.

Additional reporting by Mimi Lau