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    Mountains Moved, Then Left to Waste

    Authorities in Gansu can’t agree on who signed off on a massive land creation project that was left half-finished — or if it was ever approved at all.

    In northwestern China’s Gansu province, a county government teamed up with a local developer to raze mountains in a land project that left 6 square kilometers of earth abandoned and eroded by the elements.

    Years later, the county’s land, development, and environment bureaus have denied responsibility for the project, with some officials saying it had never been approved in the first place, according to a Wednesday report from China Real Estate Business, a newspaper supervised by the central Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.

    The land project began in August 2013, when the government of Gaolan County, in the south of the province, signed a contract with a local developer. The aim of the project — which would absorb 1.2 square kilometers of farmland used by residents from five villages — was to create flat land suitable for roads and other construction initiatives. An individual familiar with the project told China Real Estate Business that the government had planned to sell the land to companies involved in logistics, manufacturing, and other industries.

    But because of financial constraints and stricter national policies for developing state-owned land, the local government suspended the project in October 2014, just over a year later — leaving the bulldozed earth bare and vulnerable to dust and drought. Other, more pressing problems came to light as well. The contract between the government and the developer was found to have been signed days before the developer was established as a company. And although road construction was included in the project, the developer had not obtained permission to do this from the industry and commerce authorities. Moreover, China Real Estate Business found cracks and partially collapsed sections along one of the nearly completed roads.

    Despite these apparent obstacles and setbacks, the developer reportedly received 20 million yuan ($3.2 million) in national subsidies for infrastructure construction.

    When contacted by China Real Estate Business, an employee at the county’s land and resources bureau said that the land development project had not been submitted to the bureau for approval, and that for this reason it had managed to fly under the radar.

    When Sixth Tone called the Gaolan County publicity office, an employee who answered the phone said the China Real Estate Business story was “fake news” and hung up. Calls to the developer went unanswered on Friday evening.

    Still more worrying than the dubious circumstances surrounding the half-completed project’s inception are its environmental consequences. Residents from one of the five villages within the affected area told China Real Estate Business that an irrigation network which ran through the village had been destroyed during development. As a result, the resident said, farmland had dried up and agricultural output had suffered.

    In October 2016, the local government called for trees to be planted in order to restore the depleted ecosystem. But when China Real Estate Business’ reporter visited the site in late March, he found only dry, empty pits where the trees should have stood.

    In traditional Chinese culture, there is a fable about an elderly man who moves mountains that stand in his way. While this and similar stories have long inspired perseverance and determination in Chinese people, experts on urban development and geoengineering have called for restraint when it comes to bulldozing mountains and repurposing farmland.

    “The phenomenon of creating cities by leveling mountains or destroying farmland poses problems because of the land waste that results from rash urbanization,” said Ren Yuan, a professor in the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Fudan University in Shanghai. Ren told Sixth Tone that the problem was more prevalent in small counties and in midwestern China: Such areas are comparatively poor, and so officials there are more likely to feel pressure to develop towns and cities in an effort to boost the local economy.

    “Creating cities by removing mountaintops is one of the more extreme scenarios,” Ren said.

    In a paper published in the British scientific journal Nature in June 2014, three Chinese scholars warned that bulldozing mountains requires considerable expertise if geoengineering problems are to be avoided. The scientists gave Yan’an — a city in Shaanxi province, which borders Gansu — as an example. In 2012, the city broke ground on a project to create 78.5 square kilometers of flat land, but because the soil consisted mostly of loose particles, the scholars warned of eminent erosion.

    The problem of overdevelopment has come to the attention of China’s central government. In a notice released in March, the Ministry of Natural Resources appealed to the country’s provinces to better regulate land creation projects through more rigorous approval processes.

    Ren, the professor, believes the root cause of this troubling phenomenon is preoccupation with GDP figures. “Local governments interpret economic growth from land development as progress,” he said, “but they neglect the negative impact on the environment, on government debt, and on people’s lives.”

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: A passing vehicle kicks up a cloud of dust by the abandoned construction site in Gaolan County, Gansu province, April 2018. From the WeChat public account of China Real Estate Business)