A long, long time ago, an old Chinese peasant named Yu Gong decided to move two inconveniently located mountains away from the entrance to his home. Legend has it he struggled terribly, but ultimately succeeded. Hence, the Chinese idiom “Yu Gong moves the mountains.” When there’s a will, there’s a way.
Now Chinese developers are putting old Yu to shame.
In what is being billed as the largest “mountain-moving project” in Chinese history, one of China’s biggest construction firms will spend ￡2.2 billion (US$3.5 billion) to flatten 700 mountains around Lanzhou, allowing development authorities to build a new metropolis on the northwestern city’s far-flung outskirts.
The Lanzhou New Area, 130,000 hectares of land 80km from the city, which is the provincial capital of arid Gansu Province, could increase the area’s GDP to ￡27 billion by 2030, the state-run China Daily reported. It has already attracted almost ￡7 billion of corporate investment.
The project will be China’s fifth “state-level development zone” and the first in the country’s rapidly developing interior, according to state media reports. Others include Shanghai’s Pudong and Tianjin’s Binhai, home to a half-built, 120-building replica of Manhattan. China’s State Council, its highest administrative authority, approved the Lanzhou project in August.
The first stage of the mountain-flattening initiative, which was first reported on Tuesday by the China Economic Weekly magazine, began in late October and will eventually enable a new urban district of almost 26km2 to be built.
One of the country’s largest private companies — the Nanjing-based China Pacific Construction Group, headed by Yan Jiehe (嚴介和) — is behind the initiative.
Chinese newspapers portray the 52-year-old as a sort of home-grown Donald Trump — ultra-ambitious and preternaturally gifted at navigating the nation’s vast network of guanxi, or personal connections.
Yan was born in the 1960s as the youngest of nine children. After a decade of working as a high-school teacher and cement plant employee, he founded his construction firm in 1995 and amassed a fortune by buying and revamping struggling state-owned enterprises. In 2006, the respected Hu Run report named Yan — then worth about ￡775 million — as China’s second-richest man.
His latest plan has evoked a healthy dose of skepticism. Lanzhou, home to 3.6 million people alongside the silty Yellow River, already has major environmental concerns. Last year, the WHO named it the city with the worst air pollution in China. The city’s main industries include textiles, fertilizer production and metallurgy.
Liu Fuyuan, a former high-level official at the country’s National Development and Reform Commission, told China Economic Weekly that the project was unsuitable because Lanzhou is frequently listed as among China’s most chronically water-scarce municipalities.
“The most important thing is to gather people in places where there is water,” he said.
Others also pointed to the financial risk of building a new city in the middle of the desert.
“All this investment needs to be paid back with residential land revenue, and I don’t see much on returns in these kinds of cities,” said Tao Ran (陶然), an economics professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “If you have a booming real-estate market it might work, but it seems to me that real estate in China is very, very risky.”
In an e-mail interview, a China Pacific Construction Group spokeswoman dismissed criticisms of the project as unjustified.
“Lanzhou’s environment is already really poor. It’s all desolate mountains which are extremely short of water,” Angie Wong said. “Our protective style of development will divert water to the area, achieve reforestation and make things better than before.”
Yan’s plans could be considered “a protective style of development, and a developmental style of protection,” she said, adding: “I think whether it’s England or America, or any other country, no one will cease development because of resource scarcity caused by geography.”