Amid downward economic pressure, China's central environmental inspection has shown no leniency toward environmental violations in property development, an industry that for years has been a major economic driver for the country.
Despite the huge investment involved, many illegal buildings have been demolished and efforts have been made to remediate damaged ecosystems.
Recently, Ocean Flower Island, an artificial islet in Hainan province built for tourism and property development, once again became an online sensation. In 2015, after property giant Evergrande Group launched the project, some media described it as being of "aircraft carrier scale", and homebuyers flocked in shortly after it opened.
In sharp contrast, it became a hot topic this time because 39 buildings on the island were ordered to be demolished. Instead of homebuyers, the program has recently attracted reporters and curious members of the public. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the buildings, they found access to them blocked.
In an administrative penalty notification issued on Dec 30, Danzhou city authorities demanded that the 39 buildings be removed in 10 days. Violations had led to the revocation of their planning permits, it said, without giving details. Evergrande applied for an administrative review of the decision on Jan 4.
The move by the city authorities was apparently taken in response to central environment inspectors' criticism of the artificial island project.
In May 2020, in a highly critical report based on a monthlong visit to Hainan about eight months earlier, inspectors said "violations at Ocean Flower Island have yet to be adequately rectified", even though they had been exposed in a previous round of inspection in 2017.
After the 2017 inspection, Evergrande illegally completed the construction of four culvert bridges, which helped reclaim 369 hectares of sea area, the report said.
Staffed by officials from the Ministry of Ecology and Environment and led by ministerial-level officials, central environmental inspection teams report to a central group headed by Vice-Premier Han Zheng.
In an online letter to house owners issued on Jan 3, Evergrande said the administrative penalty didn't affect buildings on other plots on the artificial islet. After more than six years of construction at a cost of roughly 81 billion yuan ($12.8 billion), the island had made "happy homes" for over 60,000 house owners, the company said.
Evergrande owes various creditors about 2 trillion yuan, and early last month told the Hong Kong Stock Exchange it might be unable to continue to meet its financial obligations. The debt crisis has triggered concerns that it may lead to a potentially wider crisis in the sector.
The fate of the 39 buildings remains unknown. The administrative review process is not finished, according to a report on Monday by Red Star News.
Based on similar recent cases, however, the outlook for Evergrande is not optimistic.
In Jinan, Shandong's provincial capital, the city government established a special team on Jan 14 to investigate property development violations unearthed by the central environmental inspection. Headed by Jinan Party chief Sun Licheng, the team consists of six groups, including one for investigation and rectification and one for environmental restoration.
The violations in southern Jinan's mountainous area were first criticized by inspectors in 2017 and again last year. In December, inspectors pointed out that Jinan authorities had paved the way for the introduction of a large batch of projects in 2019 by relaxing control measures meant to conserve the city's many springs.
According to local authorities, at least 10 unfinished illegal villas have been demolished, but a recent report by Economic Information Daily, a newspaper based in Beijing, said the number of villas built illegally in the protected area is in the thousands.
In another prominent case exposed last year in Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, all the illegal buildings have been demolished.
When central environmental inspectors visited Dianchi Lake, one of Kunming's best known scenic spots, in April, they found illegal construction had turned a lush green hillside on its south bank into a "concrete mountain".
By early November, 214 buildings, as well as some other facilities such as sealed roads, had been demolished. About 940,000 square meters of land has been afforested with 350,000 plants, according to local authorities.
China's housing authority has stressed on multiple occasions that the country will not turn to property development to boost the economy despite downward pressure on the economy.
In an interview with Xinhua News Agency in late December, Wang Menghui, minister of housing and urban-rural development, said, "China will not use the property sector as a tool to stimulate short-term economic growth."
To urge more measures from local authorities to stabilize house prices, Ni Hong, a vice-minister of housing and urban-rural development, summoned leading officials from five cities, including Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, and Hefei, capital of Anhui province, in April.
He demanded they "uncompromisingly" curb housing speculation, stressing that "housing is for living in, not for speculation".