Land, like water, is ever more rare in China. Only 11% of China’s surface an be cultivated, and the migration from the countryside – a phenomenon of Biblical proportions – has made land surrounding the cities increasingly scarce and precious. For the first time in its millennial history China has become an urban country where less than half of the population still lives in the country. An ancient agricultural society has now unequivocally changed its shape, but important economic problems are still ongoing, related to both agriculture and construction. The latter has been addressed through “land grabbing,” the practice of taking out long-term leases on tracts of land in large, sparsely populated foreign countries, but more radical solutions are needed. Lacking overall directives, Beijing has allowed certain projects that may appear bizarre, but reveal the urgency of the situation. Last August, the leadership approved a mega-plan to level 700 hills and mountains on the outskirts Lanzhou. The goal is to build a new metropolis, an appendix to a city of already 3.6 million inhabitants. It is the first “state-level economic development zone” created in the country’s interior. The other development zones – the most important being Pudong along the Shanghai River – were formed along the coastline, where the solutions for residential zoning are much more difficult.
The project has been entrusted to Yan Jiehe, one of China’s richest men and president of one of China’s most powerful construction companies, the China Pacific Construction Group. The plan must have been well thought out before its approval, because the doubts it raises are certainly reasonable. Lanzhou is historically been plagued with lack of water. Built along the banks of the Huang Ho (the Yellow River), Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu, a province wedged between the river and surrounding arid lands. Literally flattening the mountains means putting in jeopardy a precarious geological balance based on the careful use of the scarce water resources available. Additionally, the flattening plan is haunted by the failures of various similar projects. Entire urban sprawls in China’s north have been built, just to become ghost stories, offices and apartment buildings left empty where they were supposed to attract new citizens. Evidently not all plans work as predicted, in the jumble of interests in the real estate market.
Perhaps even more eccentric is the attempt to recover arable land through the clearing of cemeteries. The government of Henan province, one of China’s vital agricultural organs, is taking measures to flatten the many small hemispherical mounds where bodies are buried. The plan is to remove more than 3 million to recover the land for crops. It is easy to predict fierce resistance to the measure in the countryside, where the government directive that imposes – albeit in a non-coercive manner – the cremation of remains, like in the cities, has not made a dent the habit of burying loved ones. The opposition is articulate, to an academic level. One professor provocatively suggested the removal of Mao Zedong’s remains from the Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square. The truth, however, is that the founder of the People’s Republic had asked to be cremated, but the celebratory rhetoric defending the status quo prevailed. Land is not recovered by the removal of monuments, but the audacity of the proposal remains intact, particularly when considered alongside the intent of the Chinese government to submit Mao’s Mausoleum for inclusion in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.