When China’s local governments ignore Xi Jinping’s instructions to demolish illegally built villas

Recent media reports have highlighted the issue of villas continuing to be illegally built in the mountains of southern Jinan even as those found are demolished. Shandong and Jinan authorities have swiftly launched investigations, including taking action against party cadres who might be involved, but will their persistence last? Zaobao correspondent Yu Zeyuan reports.
The Shandong and Jinan authorities have set up investigative teams to look into thousands of illegally constructed villas in the area. (Internet)
The Shandong and Jinan authorities have set up investigative teams to look into thousands of illegally constructed villas in the area. (Internet)

Following media reports on 13 January 2022 exposing thousands of illegally built villas in an ecological and water conservation area in Jinan, Shandong province, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Shandong party committee and provincial government have set up a team to carry out a thorough investigation. Some analyses have it that after a similar incident in Xi’an in 2018 led to several senior officials losing their positions, this fresh incident may also lead to a shakeup among Shandong’s officials.

A commentary on 13 January 2022 in mainstream media People's Daily questioned why the villas were built in a conservation area, and whether an ecological red line was crossed. Following two rounds of conservation inspections, why are there still repeated demolitions, with no construction ban imposed? Whose fault is it that loopholes remain? Questions have to be answered and the truth cannot be covered up. Similar incidents have sounded alarms and one does not have to look far to learn the lessons. The investigation has to be serious and thorough and get to the root cause, rather than skimming the surface and ending with no conclusion. Investigating the key points and protecting the environment out of political responsibility is the way for Jinan — known as the “city of springs” — to protect its lifeblood.

According to a report on 13 January 2022 by Economic Information Daily under state media Xinhua, with the continued efforts of the Central Supervision Office of Ecological and Environmental Protection, since 2017 there has been a wave of demolitions of illegally built villas in the mountain area in southern Jinan, but after four years, thousands of such villas in the area remain untouched while new villa projects continue to be blatantly constructed.

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Thousands of villas remain untouched while new villa projects continue to be blatantly constructed in protected mountain areas. (Internet)

The report said that in May 2017, the head of the management committee in charge of the mountain areas in southern Jinan revealed at a meeting that “those who have villas built in the southern mountain area are either rich or well connected”, and it involves “various celebrities, entrepreneurs, and artists”. Many local villagers told the reporter that some of the owners of these villas “look like party cadres at a glance”.

...“one villa spoils half the mountain”, and local villagers lament that the villas are growing faster than the trees.

The management committee released a notice that from May 2017 to September 2020, some 6,871 illegal buildings over 4.23 million square metres were demolished. However, Economic Information Daily found that most of the buildings demolished during that period were illegally built modest houses, factories and makeshift farm housing and animal sheds, with only a handful of villas included in the demolitions.

Southern Jinan’s mountain area is in the Tai mountain range, providing 200 million cubic metres of underground water each year to Jinan’s springs amid its limestone surroundings, being the main source of water for Jinan’s daily use. To protect the ecology of the area, the local government has clearly regulated tight controls over the population moving south from the city, strictly limiting development projects in the southern mountain area.

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An illegally built villa being demolished in Tianjinggu village, Jinan. (Internet)

Villagers lament that villas grow faster than trees

However, for a long time now, the villas constructed for “city folk” who swarm to southern Jinan’s mountain area seem to be everywhere. In some places, “one villa spoils half the mountain”, and local villagers lament that the villas are growing faster than the trees.

This report sparked wide interest in China, with a stream of online criticism of the Shandong and Jinan governments.

Following the announcement of the investigation in Shandong, the Jinan authorities also announced a leadership team and workgroup headed by municipal party committee and municipal government leaders, with members consisting of city leaders and department heads. The team will conduct a thorough investigation into illegally built villas, look into buildings alleged to be built against regulations, and carry out demolitions and investigate those in charge, leaving no stone unturned.

From 2014, CCP secretary general Xi Jinping repeatedly issued directions for Shaanxi province to resolve the issue of the illegally built villas in the Qin mountains in Xi’an, but the Shaanxi and Xi’an authorities kept dragging their feet without demolishing the villas.

Some people note that amid the criticism, the response from the Shandong and Jinan authorities has been quite quick, which might be because the lessons from the Xi’an case are still fresh. However, the thousands of illegally built villas would definitely involve many of the rich and powerful, which means there will be great resistance to investigations. And if this resistance is to be broken, Shandong will have to be firm in investigating officials involved in the illegal construction of the villas, otherwise, there is a possibility of the case going unresolved, as happened in Xi’an.

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The illegally constructed villas are likely to involve the rich and powerful. (Internet)

From 2014, CCP secretary general Xi Jinping repeatedly issued directions for Shaanxi province to resolve the issue of the illegally built villas in the Qin mountains in Xi’an, but the Shaanxi and Xi’an authorities kept dragging their feet without demolishing the villas.

In July 2018, in his sixth instruction, Xi called for the investigation to “begin at the level of political discipline, to thoroughly investigate issues that have been treated but not cured, prohibited but not ended, where people obey in the light but not in the dark.” In the second half of that month, the CCP’s central leadership sent a specialised workgroup to Xi’an to investigate.

Over the next few months, senior officials such as former Shaanxi party secretary Zhao Zhengyong, Shaanxi standing committee member and provincial party secretary-general Qian Yin’an, as well as several Xi’an officials might be removed from their posts or demoted, while thousands of illegally built villas in Xi’an will all be demolished.

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