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Fresh Campaign to Battle Land Violations
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China's Ministry of Land Resources (MLR) kicked off a 100-day campaign on Monday to crack down on local governments that are illegally transferring householders' land to property developers.

The campaign will target those officials who fail to seek authorization from higher authorities for land use and those who flout decrees to expand the size of development zones.

Zhang Xinbao, director of China’s Land Enforcement and Supervision Department of the Ministry of Land Resources, admitted that land violators had been dealt with too leniently in the past. He pledged to toughen the government stance towards corrupt officials.

"Quite a number of violators have been fined or disciplined ... a legion of those penalized were at village level. Our enforcement has moved to target officials at county and city levels only in recent years. Last year, two provincial officials were penalized," Zhang said.

Statistics from the MLR show that in 2006 alone, 3,094 officials received Party or administrative penalties, comprising 35.6 percent of the total 8,698 between 2,000 and 2006. Another 501 were given criminal sentences, accounting for 41 percent of the total 1,221 in the past seven years. From January to August, 893 officials were penalized and 245 landed criminal charges.

The MLR will expose a number of land violation cases next week to bring shame on perpetrators, the ministry said.

Land violations have evolved into a sticky issue in China as the central government order promulgated in 2004 to implement "the strictest land management policy" has continued to hit a variety of snags at the local level.

On one hand, some government officials still want to attract capital and technology by offering investors cheap or even free land resources. This practice was rife along China’s east coast in the early period of the country’s economic reform and opening-up. On the other hand, land yields have remained a steady source of fiscal revenue for local governments.

Lured by such immediate local interests, some governments have stealthily restored development zones that were closed down years ago or acquiesced the management of legal development zones to invite business for abolished ones.

Since a national overhaul to shut down inefficient or idle development zones began in 2003, the number of development zones in China and their aggregate land size has shrunk by more than 70 percent to 1,568 and 9,949 square kilometers respectively by the end of 2006.

"If we allow violators to get away with this, development zones would sprawl rapidly and consume more land," Gan Zangchun, deputy director-general of the country's land inspection authority, warned.

Rapid urbanization has triggered outrage from some farmers who were not properly compensated for their farmland. It has also led to a drastic decline in the area of land available for cultivation, prompting the government to set a minimum land area of 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) to feed its people.

Domestic policy makers started to track the speed and scale of new land supply in non-agriculture sectors each year, beginning in 2004, in order to control the total land supply and boost overall macro-economic control.

"Finding a way around authorities' land use supervision is detrimental to the interests of farmers and may spawn misleading economic indicators as well as disrupt the implementation of macro-economic policies," Gan said.

After four years of double-digit growth, the world's fourth largest economy registered an 11.5-percent rise in GDP in the first half. With its consumer price index, a major barometer of inflation, surging to a ten-year-high of 6.5 percent in August, there is a rising concern that the economy is close to the edge of overheating.

Land violations have become increasingly discreet in recent years. According to Gan, in the first two years of the policy change (2004-2006) many government officials blatantly approved illegal land use. After two additional decrees came out in 2004 and 2006, such violations became rare but the cases of circumventing laws and regulations started to shoot upwards.

National figures on these perpetrations are still being counted. A recent overhaul on the newly-added land for construction in 70 cities showed that nine percent of the requisitioned land has been put into the market in the name of leasing to avoid prior approval. In one major city, about 67.4 percent of the land provided to local township enterprises entered the market in this way.

Gan said that township governments, village committees and individual farmers signed most of the phony lease contracts. "Our stance is very clear. Administrative leaders will be held responsible if they turn a blind eye to land violations or fail to punish perpetrators in line with laws and regulations," Zhang Xinbao said.

(Xinhua News Agency September 18, 2007)

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