Rural land sales are legal only if acquired by local governments and sold to developers in line with a land use plan. Photo: SCMP

Officials face uphill battle in fresh crackdown on rural construction

With so many willing offenders, authorities face an uphill battle to stop illegal building and sales

China has launched its latest crackdown against the construction and sale of illegal residential properties on rural land. Similar efforts have failed repeatedly in the past few years. Will this time be any different?

Properties built on rural land and sold to non-local residents have limited rights. Under Chinese law, rural land is collectively owned by villagers and cannot be developed into commercial property and sold to people outside the village.

Only if rural land is acquired by local governments and then sold to developers in line with a local land use plan, will it be legal.

Speculators betting on rising home prices have invested heavily in property built on rural land with limited rights. Billionaires, who are fed up with urban chaos, also buy large pieces of land from farmers and build spacious homes.

The problem is their purchases are not protected by law. But they choose to believe in a Chinese idiom "the law cannot be enforced when everyone is an offender".

Such buildings have been torn down in past campaigns, and no compensation to buyers has been reported. But it has stirred public debate on whether the government should now treat buyers differently.

The mainland has never lacked land abuse. Ministry of Land and Resources data show 62,000 illegal land use cases in 2012, down 12 per cent from 2011.

Exactly how many homes with limited rights are there on the mainland? No one knows - not even the government, although local officials should know about construction activities in their villages. But in some cases, township or village heads are the law violators.

The Ministry of Land and Resources, with the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, issued an urgent notice on November 22, ordering local governments to investigate the construction and sale of such properties, hold people involved accountable and send a warning to buyers of potential risks.

Beijing tore down several such projects in suburban districts the next day. It has also been publishing the names of illegal projects on the local authorities' website. The notice came after top leaders pledged to establish a unified urban and rural land market, which stoked speculation the leadership would eventually legalise properties with limited rights.

That anticipation has fuelled frenzied construction and sales of such properties in recent months.

Mainland media reported that activities have now gone underground, waiting for the crackdown to pass over. "Now the tide is high, we must be low key. After this period has passed, the market will return to normal," an unnamed sales person of an illegal project in Shenzhen was quoted by in the as saying.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Doubts over policing rural construction