Virgin urban construction land in China is like a carcass in a pit of hyenas. The feeding frenzy to gobble up and lay claim to as much develop-able land as possible has created a current demand that has far outpaced current necessity, and though the real estate market in China is currently in one of its trough phases the price of land is still hovering at almost incomprehensible heights. Land sales are one of the main ways that local municipalities in China generate revenue, which means that cities across the country are ever stoking the flames of this melee, as plots of construction land continue selling at record prices.
Though looming on the horizon is China’s “red line,” which is the 120 million hectare limit that must be left undeveloped for agricultural purposes — the only real barrier to development. This has provoked many municipalities throughout the country to come up with new and sometimes extreme ways to continue the filling the coffers with the spoils of land sales without cutting into the amount reserved for agriculture. For municipalities that are geographically able, the solution is often simple: make more land. While some inland cities are leveling mountains to create more urban construction land, coastal cities have taken another approach: they are reclaiming it from the sea.
Sometimes called a “Gift of land from the sea,” land reclamation is nothing new in China. It is something that has been practiced on a broad scale since the Qing Dynasty, when farmers began trapping sediment in the Pearl River Delta to create more agricultural land. But in the current era, land reclamation in China has become a proverbial free for all. All down China’s 18,000 kilometers of coastline every province currently has large-scale projects underway to extend their terrains farther out into the sea. Now, entire sprawling cities are sprouting up from what was up until recently water, as China literally grows larger and larger each day. The numbers are incredible: China is tacking on the surface area of Singapore each year.
The methodologies for reclaiming land from the sea are relatively straight forward. There are three main ways: 1) Excavating soil from the mainland, shipping it out to sea, and dumping it on existing islands or the current coastline, thus expanding their reach, 2) Dredging soil from the aquatic surface of a borrow site and then depositing it where new land is intended to be created, and/ or 3) Putting up barrier walls around the mouth of a river or in a bay in front of the intended fill site, and just allowing the area within to silt up naturally, moving the barrier farther out to sea as needed.
Below is a list of some of the most extreme land reclamation projects that have happened or are currently going on in China right now.
Nanhui, Lingang New Area, Shanghai
The first time I saw the product of land reclamation in China was in Shanghai’s Nanhui New Town, a 133 square kilometer new city which was built to support the Yangshan Free Trade Zone that is projected to have 800,000 residents by 2020. 45 percent of the development was built on newly created land, and today it is impossible to tell where the natural coastline ends and the reclaimed land begins. The result of this reclamation can readily be noticed: there is now a hook nose hanging off of Pudong where there wasn’t one before.
Yangshan Deep Water Port
Shanghai’s Yangshan Deep Water Port was intended to become one of the largest and busiest in Asia. The port is still being built on the islands of Greater and Lesser Yangshan that are in the middle of Hangzhou Bay, which are connected to the mainland by the 32.5 km Donghai Bridge, one of the longest sea bridges in the world. The port is still growing as more and more land is reclaimed. Right now, construction is on the final phase, which is set to be completed in 2015 and provide the port with a total of 30 berths that can handle 15 million TEUs annually.
The Yangshan Islands are continental, and are basically the tops of small mountains that were flooded by rising sea levels. This means that it is easy to tell what parts of the port was reclaimed. The natural land is jagged and rocky, the newly created land is smooth, flat, and runs flush with the sea.
Qianhai, Shenzhen, Guangdong
Qianhai is a new SEZ to the south of Shenzhen that’s meant to be a testing ground for various economic reforms, including Yuan liberalization, which is meant to compete with Hong Kong as a place to route international investments into China. Also like Hong Kong, Qianhai is partially built on reclaimed land.
Around 15 square kilometers of what was once open sea is now the platform for skyscrapers in Qianhai’s new CBD. “The designers have applied advanced techniques from Japan, compressing and dewatering bits of land based on their physical conditions,” an article on the topic stated.
Land reclamation in Qianhai seems to be a healthy investment. On August 16th, a plot of land there sold for US$1.77 billion, bringing the new city’s total earnings through land sales up to US$37.4 billion.
Under the slogan of “One Shantou: Coastal Garden City Today, Tomorrow and the Future,” the city of Shantou in Guangdong Province has sought to stretch its reach at least 24.87 square kilometers farther out into the sea. It’s been dubbed the “Eastern Land Reclamation Project,” and the final product will be a place called East Coast New City.
Most of the land has already been created via a system called Hydraulic reclamation, where dredged or excavated soil is mixed with water and fired out of a hose, firefighter style, into an area off the coast that was corralled in by a 25-kilometer ripped-rock seawall. Once finished, East Coast New City is intended to be the site of a new central business district, an uptown area, a wetland park, and, of course, plenty of new housing that will provide capacity for 200,000 new residents.
Longkou, in Shandong province, also found its growth ambitions stunted by the sea. The local government complained that 44 commercial initiatives worth over US$16 million a piece were halted due to the limited supply of land. So the city officials began looking seaward to expand their frontier. In 2010, they began removing 300 million cubic meters of soil and stone from a nearby mountain and dumping it into the bay. A few years and US$3.17 billion later, seven completely new islands rose above the water’s surface, providing an additional 35.2 square kilometers of development land for apartment complexes, resorts, corporate offices, golf courses, and industrial parks. By 2020, 200,000 people are expected to live on these new islands, which are projected to yield an annual revenue of US$47.56 billion.
Through dredging and reclamation, the Port of Tianjin was created. It is the largest port in the north of China, and it was made almost entirely on reclaimed land. 107 square kilometers of land have already been taken from Bohai Bay for the port, and two more artificial islands — of 30-square kilometers and 45-square kilometers — are expected to be completed by the end of 2015.
Also infringing upon Bohai Bay is Caofeidian. What used to be a small sand island 18 kilometers from shore is now the location of what is intended to be the world’s largest reclaimed area. It is one of the largest developmental projects currently underway in China, and over 20 million tons of ore have already been shipped and deposited, expanding the island larger and larger. Eventually, it is intended to be 1,943 square kilometers, with a massive 487 square kilometers of that — twice the size of Boston — being reclaimed from the surrounding tidal flats, salt marshes, and coastal aquaculture land. One developer proudly stated that “Non-residents are unable to recognize that the spacious and beautiful North Loop Road was once the former coastline.”
Phoenix Island, Hainan Island
On Hainan Island, the city of Sanya has created something dubbed the “Oriental Dubai” by building an artificial archipelago for luxury hotels and an international cruise ship port. Though relatively small, being just 393,825 square meters, Phoenix Island has become a landmark work of land reclamation in China, mostly because of its high ticket attractions (including a “seven star hotel”) and the environmental havoc that it caused.
Taizhou, in Zhejiang Province, is currently expanded their city another 266.7 square kilometers, more than twice the size of Paris, into the sea.
Topping every other province in China, Jiangsu is currently reclaiming 21 parcels of land from the Yellow Sea, totaling 1,817 square kilometers, or an area the size of London mashed together with Munich. Much of this land reclamation is coming in the form of turning tidal flats — i.e. expanses of coastal mud — into develop-able land.
Perhaps the most controversial land reclamation project currently happening in China now is on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. They are in the heart of an area whose national ownership is heavily disputed. Along with China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan also claims this expanse of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, submerged oceanic features cannot be claimed as the property of any country, but China found a loophole in the rules:
Turn submerged shoals into above water islands that can sustain human habitation and then claim them.
Five new islands are now being created on five different reefs for this purpose, and the result has brought the entire Southeast Asian theater to hurl empty threats of military action.
The Economics of Land Reclamation
Coastal land reclamation in China has become a developmental free for all. Though many of these projects come with huge price tags, the resulting spoils make it worth the investment. Filling aquatic areas with earth cost as much as US$71,349 to US$713,490 per hectare, but the land can be sold for up to 100 times this amount. A record breaking land sale on a reclaimed island in Hainan saw a plot go for over US$1.5 million per square meter. So the economic incentive for land reclamation is obvious. Land reclamation is likewise an ace in the hole for cash-strapped municipalities that rely on land sales to fill their coffers.
As usual, accompanying the huge profits of land reclamation is a huge environmental toll. Rapidly expanding islands and coastlines mean the destruction of natural marine ecosystems. It means coastal wetlands, mangroves, and reefs being decimated, the removal of coastal flat buffer zones, the disappearance of native biodiversity, and less resistance to floods and rising sea levels. Meanwhile, dredging the seabed often means releasing massive amounts of long buried heavy metals, pesticide residues, and other toxins back into the environment. On top of this, the new cities and industrial zones that will be built on the successfully reclaimed land will serve as new sources of pollution, dumping untold amounts of waste and sewage directly into the marine environment.
This large scale, rampant land reclamation movement also largely avoids governmental regulation. China’s National Development and Reform Commission has found that every single of one of the country’s coastal provinces had illegal land reclamation projects in the works. Along with this, a common loophole that local municipalities are using to subvert the regulation that all reclamation projects larger than 50 hectares need Central Government approval is to simply take many separate sub-50 hectare plots and then connecting them altogether. Some of these patchwork projects have totaled up to 1,000 hectares.
It has been estimated by Wu Jinchao, a researcher at China’s No.2 Institute of Oceanography, that mitigating and fixing the damage to the country’s marine environment by land reclamation would already require a $15.86 billion investment. Needless to say, the future cost of this land manufacturing bonanza may eventually cut into the big profits that are being made today.
China is expanding, literally. Each day the country gets a little larger. The run away train of development and a fiscal system that requires local municipalities to depend on land sales to fill their coffers has resulted in one of the biggest and most invasive engineering movements happening in the world today. The country’s coastlines of yesterday are far inland today, and there is really nothing stopping them from stretching farther and farther out to sea. Where China will eventually stop, nobody knows.