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A Gift From the Sea: On China’s Land Reclamation Free-for-all

China is growing — literally. Each year China grows by the size of Singapore through reclaiming land from the sea.

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China has undergone more than three decades of unprecedented rapid growth. Literally. The country is expanding. Hundreds of kilometers are added onto China each year, as coastlines are extended farther and farther out to sea as massive amounts of land are reclaimed to build new cities, ports, resorts, and industrial zones.

Dubbed by the domestic media as a “gift from the sea,” land reclamation has became an all out developmental free-for-all in China, with every coastal province having large-scale projects under way.

“Land from the sea creates ‘cheap’ space for agriculture, industries, and urbanization. For planners, this is a ‘tabula rasa,’ where you can build whatever you like on a white sheet of paper,” said Harry den Hartog, the author of Shanghai New Towns who is currently researching land reclamation in China for the Netherlands’ Delft University.

Reclaiming land is nothing new in China. Since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) sediments have been trapped from rivers or from the coast to make more land for farming, salt production, and aquaculture. Hong Kong has been reclaiming land since the 1860s. The surface area of Macau has been increased 1,000% with artificial land. In the current era, cities all across China are creating new land to develop for urbanization initiatives — and the profits are huge.

According to Liu Hongbin, a professor at the Ocean University of China, reclaimed land can result in a ten to hundredfold profit. Last August, a plot of reclaimed land in Qianhai sold for US$1.77 billion, bringing the new special economic zone’s total earnings through land sales up to US$37.4 billion. While a record breaking land sale in Hainan saw an artificially created parcel go for over US$1.5 million per square meter. So the economic impetus for land reclamation is clear — making land makes money.

The Yangshan Deep Water Port was built on soil that was dredged and dumped on a string of islands.

The Yangshan Deep Water Port was built on soil that was dredged and dumped on a string of islands.

In 2010, the coastal city of Longkou, in Shandong province, found its urbanization ambitions stunted by the sea which hemmed it in. The local government whined for a while about how many millions of dollars in revenue was being lost each year because of the lack of new development land, but then devised an ambitious plan to remedy the situation: they would remove 440 million cubic meters of soil and stone from a nearby mountain and dump it into the bay. A few years and and over US$3 billion later, seven new islands rise above the water’s surface, providing an additional 35.2 square kilometers of urban construction land that could be sold off to developers at a premium rate. By 2020, 200,000 people are expected to live on these new islands, which will by then sport arrays of new apartment complexes, resorts, offices, golf courses, and industrial parks. The local government hopes that the annual yield from this additional development will be in the ballpark of US$50 billion.

The new city of Nanhui is mostly built on reclaimed land.

The new city of Nanhui is mostly built on reclaimed land.

If you look at a satellite image of Shanghai you will notice an askance hook nose-like protrusion hanging off the tip of Pudong. That protrusion is artificial; it was land that was created for a 133 sq km new city called Nanhui, which is touted to eventually become a “mini-Hong Kong.” Reclaiming enough land to build this city that was designed to house 800,000 people only took five or six years.

Large-scale “land manufacturing” projects are currently underway all the way up and down China’s 18,000 kilometers of coastline:

● Tianjin port, the largest in north China, was constructed on 107 sq km of land that was reclaimed from Bohai Bay.

● Shanghai’s Yangshan Deep Water Port was created by dumping incredible amounts of sediments upon a string of natural islands. It is now one of the busiest container ports in the world.

● An expanse of land twice the size of Los Angeles has already been reclaimed by Tangshan to create the Caofeidian new economic zone, and there are plans to add on an additional San Francisco-sized portion by 2020.

● In Guangdong Province, Dongguan and Shantou are tacking on 44.6 sq km and 24 sq km respectively, while the new Qianhai FTZ in Shenzhen, is being built on 15 sq km of land taken from the sea.

● Sanya created something dubbed the “Oriental Dubai” by building an artificial archipelago for luxury hotels and an international cruise ship port.

● Taizhou is currently expanding by more than twice the size of Paris into the sea.

● Yuhuan county manufactured land for a new area the size of Milwaukee.

● Jiangsu Province is currently reclaiming 21 parcels of land from the Yellow Sea, totaling 1,817 sq km, or the size of London combined with Munich.

Although more controversial than China extending the bounds of its own country is China reclaiming land in places where its jurisdiction is questionable. Along with China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan have also claimed parts of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, submerged oceanic features cannot be claimed as the domain of any country, but China found a loophole: They would just dredge up sediment and dump it upon the submerged shoals in question, thus turning them into islands which could then be claimed — destabilizing the entire region in the process.

Land was reclaimed from the sea to build this new city.

Land was reclaimed from the sea to build this new city.

There are three main ways to reclaim land from the sea: 1) Excavating soil and stone from the mainland, shipping it out, and dumping it on the current coastline or at the edges of existing islands; 2) Hydraulic reclamation, which consists of dredging soil from the sea floor, mixing it with water, and then shooting it through a hose upon the desired reclamation site, and 3) Putting up barrier walls outside of the mouth of a river and then allowing the area in between to silt up naturally, incrementally moving the barrier farther out until the desired amount of sediment has been collected.

Besides creating a valuable resource where one didn’t exist before, there are other advantages to reclaiming land. Taking land from the sea provides development-obsessed local governments the option to avoid demolishing yet more rural villages and relocating tens of thousands more people. Although China generally has no qualms about forcibly moving its citizens around the country like pieces on a game board — upwards of four million people each year are booted from their homes to make way for development projects — reclaiming fresh land is often vastly cheaper, easier, and doesn’t carry the same potential for a social backlash. Another reason is that China is at the breaching point its so-called “red-line” — the 120 million hectares of arable land that must be left available for agriculture. As this food security quota isn’t adjusted when land is added onto the country, filling in the sea with soil is a way to get more development land while leaving existing farmland intact.

The downtown part of Nanhui, 60 km outside of Shanghai, is built on reclaimed land.

The downtown part of Nanhui, 60 km outside of Shanghai, is built on reclaimed land.

“Farmland is extremely precious, especially along the coast where the cities are growing. So it seemed to make sense to build into the sea,” Fanny Hoffman-Loss, one of the architects that oversaw Nanhui explained.

As can be expected, accompanying the huge profits inherent to land reclamation comes a huge environmental toll. Wetlands, mangrove forests, reefs, and coastal flats are eradicated as sediment is piled on top of them. This has the potential to wipe out entire populations of native plant and fish species, decimate the local fisheries, and increase the newly created area’s vulnerability to pollution, drought, flooding, and, especially, rising sea levels. On top of this, the new cities and industrial zones that will be built on the new land will serve as new sources of pollution, dumping untold amounts of waste directly into the marine environment.

What’s more is that many of these aquatic expansion projects may not even be built on solid ground. “A very big issue is that due to the high development pressure there is often not enough time for new land to become firm,” den Hartog explained. “The consequences can be serious, like damage to buildings and roads, which makes it not sustainable at all.”

During the 11th five year plan (2006-2010), China’s land reclamation frenzy was at its height, and under the auspices of the central government 700 sq km of land — roughly the size of Singapore — was being created each year, but since then the amount of land being reclaimed has been dialed back. In an attempts to prevent what was looking like a “land reclamation bubble” the amount of land that could be legally be created nationwide was reduced to 200 sq km each year — which is still a massive amount.

Although there is a loophole in the rules. Land reclamation projects below 50 hectares do not need central government approval, and are therefore not regulated, so municipalities and developers are now simply making many separate sub-50 hectare parcels and then patchworking them together into vastly larger yields — some of which have totaled 1,000 hectares. Beyond this, China’s National Development and Reform Commission has found that all of the country’s coastal provinces have illegal reclamation projects in the works, and as the penalty — a fine — is often vastly less than the potential profit it is apparently still good business to build first and deal with the consequences later.

So while the central government has made attempts at regulation, large-scale land reclamation in China rolls on. Entire new cities, ports, and industrial zones continue sprouting up from places that were once only open water, as the country grows larger and larger each day. Where China will stop, nobody knows.

A version of this article was originally published on CityMetric at “The gift from the sea”: through land reclamation, China keeps growing and growing.

Filed under: Articles, China, New Cities, Urbanization

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3704 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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