The Party's Central Discipline Inspection Commission has given a serious warning to two provincial-level officials in central China's Henan Province on Wednesday for defying central government rules on land acquisition.
The fact that such senior officials have been punished for this offence for the first time indicates the determination and persistence of the central government in curbing the rampant land enclosure by local governments.
What is really disturbing about this case is that the occupation of 992 hectares of cultivated land in the suburbs of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan, was illegal from the very beginning in 2004.
The Regulations on the Protection of Basic Cultivated Land, which took effect in 1999, stipulate that the acquisition of farmland for other purposes must have approval from the State Council. But the acquisition of such a large area of farmland did not go through any transaction even in the local provincial and city bureaus of land and resources.
The Ministry of Land and Resources was tipped about this violation in 2005 and sent a team to investigate. The ministry, after reporting it to the State Council, required Zhengzhou's municipal government to rectify the matter. But, instead of mending its mistakes, the municipal government sped up its land seizure.
Local economic benefit is again behind this blatant violation of State rules and the defiance of the central government's authority.
The occupied land has been used for a university city, although the central provincial capital has already developed three zones of the same kind. The seemingly education-oriented investment can in fact bring about even more chances for input in urban renovation, and therefore more income from the trading of land.
When a dozen universities are moved out of the old city area to the suburbs, the municipal government will be able to sell the city areas they have left behind to real estate developers for another round of urban renovation.
In part, this explains why the craze of urban construction, and the unbridled use of arable land for this purpose, can continue for years and is hard to bring under control.
Two phenomena here deserve special attention, as both are likely to affect the realization of the central government's goal of keeping the total area of arable land at 120 million hectares nationwide by the year 2020.
First is the arbitrary decision by a local government in this matter with no regard to any relevant law or regulation. As in this case, the provincial and municipal governments made the decision on their own, before which the local watchdog of land and resources could do nothing and did not even notify the Ministry of Land and Resources as it should have.
Second is making the illegal occupation of land a fait accompli as quickly as possible, before the central authorities get wind of it and intervene. It took only a year for at least five colleges to move in after construction of this zone started in August of 2004.
It is impossible to get back the nearly 1,000 hectares of arable land, whatever punishment the central government may inflict upon local officials. But the central government needs to be alerted by this particular incident where the root cause of the pain is, and thus work out countermeasures.
The central authorities must also impose even more severe punishments on illegal land seizure to deter other local governments from following this example.
Another lesson from this incident is that a mechanism must be established to make the local department of land and resources function as a real watchdog -- one that at least barks when an illegal occupation of arable land occurs.
(China Daily September 29, 2006)