Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 10 News List

China shutting development zones

FALLING PRODUCTION A 15-year low in grain harvests appears to be behind Beijing's decision to crack down on illegal land acquisition in order to save farmland

BLOOMBERG

China shut more than half the nation's 6,015 economic-development zones last year as the government attempts to reverse a loss of farmland that threatens its ability to feed the world's largest population.

The government closed 3,763 zones, the Ministry of Land and Resources said in an annual report on its Web site.

China's arable land shrank by 2 percent to 123.4 million hectares last year, the report said.

Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) last month vowed to clamp down on illegal seizure of farmland by local governments after four years of falling grain harvests. China's grain production dropped to a 15-year low of about 431 million tonnes last year, the official China Daily reported on Dec. 30.

"The strictest possible system for protecting farmland will be implemented and control over the use of farmland will be strengthened," Wen said in his work report to the National People's Congress last month.

"We will resolutely put an end to illegal acquisition and use of farmland," he said.

The government last year sacked Tian Fengshan (田鳳山), former minister of land and resources, amid reports of corruption scandals linked to the real estate market, and halted the establishment of new development zones.

A decade of economic growth averaging more than 9 percent has boosted demand for construction sites, encouraging corrupt local bureaucrats to appropriate agricultural land from farmers in exchange for kick-backs from developers.

The government uncovered 178,000 illegal land requisition cases last year, ruling on 124,000 and retrieving 5,878 hectares of land, the ministry said in its report.

A total of 925 officials were disciplined, while 132 of them were charged with crimes, it said.

The report didn't say what will happen to the development zones that have been shuttered.

Land should be returned to farming where possible, the State Council, or Cabinet, said in a notice last December.

The government's campaign is also directed at preventing unrest among the country's about 800 million rural residents and ensuring more balanced economic growth.

China's State Development and Reform Commission, its top planning agency, last month criticized "blind" and "wasteful" projects by local governments that it said were undermining attempts by the central authorities to prevent excess investment in industries such as steel and cement.

Per-capita arable land fell to 0.098 hectare last year from 0.095 hectare a year earlier, less than half the world average, the land ministry said.

About 28 percent of the 186,800 hectares of land requisitioned last year was sold through public bidding, up from 15 percent a year earlier, the report said.

China needs at least 106.7 million hectares of cultivated land to feed its future theoretical peak population of 1.6 billion, the official Xinhua news agency reported on March 22, citing Pan Mingcai, director of the ministry's Department of Cultivated Land Protection.

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