Over 2,000 lavish villas illegally built at the foot of Qinling Mountains
The Qinling Mountain covers some of the largest remnants of densely forested land in China and is referred to as “central green lungs” in the country.
The mountains provide a natural boundary between North and South China and support a huge variety of plants and wildlife, such as pandas, snub-nosed monkeys, and crested ibis.
To the north is the densely populated Wei River valley, an ancient center of Chinese civilization, with its capital Xi’an only about one hour drive to the green plantations.
For the rich and powerful in the capital city, the mountainous area can be a getaway paradise, a dragon vein in China’s history and culture.
“It was initially an individual behavior to build villas in the piedmont area of Qinling Mountain, starting in 1997,” Wen Shang, who runs a local real-estate company, told the China Economic Weekly.
”Rich people from the city purchased land in the mountain village as part of their lifestyle. It is illegal to buy residential land in rural areas, but more people choose to follow suit,” Wen said.
In one case, a farming village was under pressure to sell more than 66,000 square meters of farm land to a real estate developer. Each villager received a subsidy of 10,000 yuan ($1,450) while each villa was sold for millions.
At Xi’an Yard, average prices for properties were around $3.3 million, according to state media. The largest project was a $55 million development invested by Jiayuxuan Real Estate Co. Ltd., starting in 2014.
According to State media CGTN, by 2017 at the northern foot of the Qinling Mountains lay more than 2,000 villas. The largest one, spanning around 9,000 square meters, was home to two fishponds and a stunning garden decorated by sophisticated stone carvings and jade statues.
Despite their architectural beauty, the villas were eyesores to local villagers, occupying farmland and damaging the environment, CGTN has said.
Who owns and who approves the development of these villas
According to State media, as early as 2003, the Shaanxi provincial government had issued a notice prohibiting companies and individuals from building commercial residences and private villas in the area. The government reiterated the regulation in 2007.
In March of 2008, the government released stricter regulations to control real estate development in the north piedmont of Qinling Mountain.
The regulations were amended on January 5, 2017, to ban all forms of real estate development.
The city government of Xi’an also set up an office for ecological and environmental protection on Qinling Mountain. The office introduced regulations aimed at protecting the environment and ecology of the mountain.
“Many of these villas have been illegally built in the name of developing tourism,” a representative from a local real estate evaluation company told Bloomberg. “Most were purchased by government officials and wealthy people. ”
“Over the past decade, the central government restricted industrial and real estate development in the Qinling range and surrounding areas. Yet loopholes allowed for moderate development for tourism,” the media has reported.
“The reasons behind the illegal villa construction are the government-business collusion and power-for-money deals between local government officials and property developers,” said Xu Lingyi, deputy head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, in an interview with CCTV News.
“Some of those tourism projects developed into real estate projects after certain authorities in charge of land planning and natural resources development gave the green light,” said Wang Yongkang, the Communist Party Secretary of Xi’an.
“I feel regret for not performing my duty in prohibiting the illegal building. I should not loosen the restriction because I took money from the property developers,” said He Hongxing, who is in charge of the planning and development of the Qinling Mountains and now facing an investigation.
Demolition by six directives of President Xi Jinping
With complaints delivered to the Central Government, a campaign to demolish the illegally constructed villas and restore the environment was first launched in 2014. In May, President Xi Jinping gave his first directive to look into the case, which, however, was not given due attention by provincial authorities, according to state media.
But local provincial and city officials were reluctant to act. They identified and reported 202 illegally-built villas in the area in 2014, claiming that “the work on demolishing illegal construction has finished.”
In the following years, President Xi gave out another four directives to question the matter. All were met with passive resistance. As a matter of fact, many more villas were built between June 2014 and 2018.
In July, the central government sent a special rectification team headed by Xu Lingyi, the deputy head of the Communist Party of China Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission.
Xu asserted that the illegal construction of these villas at the north side of the Qinling Mountain is a political issue, local media reported.
On first of November 2018, Qian Yin’an, a senior official in Shaanxi Province, was investigated for suspected serious violations of Party disciplinary rules and laws, according to the top anti-graft agency.
On November 5, Shangguan Jiqing resigned from the post of Xi’an mayor.
Wei Minzhou, the former municipal Party secretary of Xi’an and former senior legislator from Shaanxi Province, was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday for taking bribes of 100 million yuan. One of the bribes reportedly was a villa in the Qinling Mountain.
“The sacking of these senior local officials is closely related with the illegal construction in Qinling Mountain,” Zhuang Deshui, deputy director of the Research Center for Government Integrity-Building at Peking University, told the Global Times.
“Some of the officials are blamed for failing to implement the central government’s orders, while some officials participated in the illegal business themselves,” added Zhuang.
In many cases, officials from local government organs, such as the Party committee and environmental protection department, were accused of accepting bribes.
Clean politics is helpful to a clean environment
According to CCTV yesterday, more than 600 lavish villas have been torn down near Qinling Mountains south of Xi’an on land the government says should become a national park.
At least 41 had been removed in early 2013 and another 270 in a 2014 crackdown, but the latest removals are the most widespread.
The Ministry of Ecology and Environment didn’t answer whether homeowners could appeal or would be compensated. State media reports indicated that more than 500 people were “punished” or “held accountable” for violations related to the construction of the villas over the past few years.
China Central Television says a law establishing the national parks is expected to be reviewed by legislators by the end of the year and possibly approved by 2020.
No one in the country has publicly questioned that the root cause of corruption related to the lavish villas is the vicious system of the CCP itself. Instead the Party has hailed it as another “sweeping victory” in the fight against corruption.
According to Xinhua, fifty-one officials at or above the provincial/ministerial level were among a total of 621,000 people punished by CCDI and the National Supervisory Commission. About 1.1 million officials were interviewed and cautioned for slight violations, about 63.6 percent of the total cases disciplinary inspectors handled in 2018 alone.
President Xi Jinping on Friday called for efforts to advance Party building, and demanded “greater strategic achievements” in full and strict governance over the Party.
He remarked that efforts should be made to make sure officials don’t dare to, are unable to and have no desire to commit corruption, to improve Party and state oversight systems.
The President urged officials to correctly uphold the authority of the CPC Central Committee, and firmly resist illicit intervention and profit-seeking by central-level leaders’ family members, their work staff, and people who claim to have connections with them.
The President seems to determine to clean up the political environment but clean politics with the CCP has never been a possibility.
By Cloudy Seagail and staff writer