Real Estate

Drive for development fuels illegal land seizures in Pizhou

Pizhou's "Zhongnanhai"

A clash over the forced seizure of farmland on January 7 that resulted in the death of one farmer brought renewed attention to the problem of illegal land requisition in rural China.

The incident took place in Hewan, a village in the county-level city of Pizhou, under the administrative jurisdiction of Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province. During the second half of January, The Beijing News reporter Tu Chonghang conducted an extensive investigation into land requisitions in Pizhou.

The report illustrates how the city's impressive economic performance is based on the practice of seizing land from local farmers for minimal compensation and then selling it off to speculators who expect land prices to continue to rise. As the city's land area increased, its government moved into fancy offices ten times larger than what had been approved.

Authorities in Pizhou knew that their actions violated the law: officials submitted bogus applications to avoid mandatory approval procedures, flooded farmland to rezone it as waste land, and even had villagers camouflage construction sites so they would not show up on satellite images. Officials from the Ministry of Land and Resources who arrived to conduct spot-checks would find villagers masquerading as factory workers to hid the fact that industrial parks were lying unused even as more were being built.

The newspaper's report assigns some of the blame to the "iron-fisted policies" of Pizhou party secretary Li Lianyu. Li, who gained national recognition in 2007 for a lavish celebration staged to welcome him home from the 17th Party Congress, carried out an ambitious five-year-plan to develop Pizhou through rapid land requisitions and immense construction projects. His style of tough micro-management drove lower-level officials to meet targets by any means possible. In some cases that included the seizure of land by force.

Behind the Pizhou Land Seizure Case, Chaotic Development

by Tu Chonghang / TBN

In the village of Penghu, in the western suburbs of Pizhou, a city in Northern Jiangsu Province, a construction site lies dormant, its buildings half complete and covered with black camouflage netting.

On January 15, several villagers explained the reason for the camouflage: the Ministry of Land and Resources had recently been investigating land use in Pizhou, so the village committee had found the netting to obscure the buildings and had laid straw and corn stalks over the cement roads to fool remote sensing satellites.

Last October, a 150-point spot check the Ministry of Land and Resources had performed in Pizhou resulted in a passing rate of 98%: painless approval.

Two months later, on January 7, a forced eviction in the village of Hewan in the town of Heyun ended up with a 22-year-old villager stabbed to death while protecting his land.

An investigation revealed that this illegal land seizure was no isolated occurrence in Pizhou. As illegal seizures were going on, the city of Pizhou had expanded 50 square kilometers in the space of five years. Last year, Pizhou leapt into the top hundred counties in China, and its "wealth through land sales"-model of city management became known as the "Pizhou phenomenon."

Drowning threats and violent land requisitions
Villager Wang Sumei said that her husband had been dragged to the lakeside and ordered to sign under threat of drowning

On January 7, Sun Xiaojun, Hewan village secretary, allegedly organized more than 200 people to seize land by force, and Li Dongdong, a 22-year-old villager, was killed while protecting his land.

The episode attracted the attention of the central authorities and the provincial leadership, and more than seventy people have been implicated in the case.

An investigation conducted by this reporter in January showed that forced demolition and land seizure was normal practice in the area.

On January 15, the former village head of Batou in the town of Yunhe, said that after their village was brought within the limits of Pizhou's New District last October, they received a deadline for demolition and removal.

Many villagers said that the town government had divided up households among its officials, who then proceeded to "flatten" the town by cutting off electricity, administering physical and verbal abuse, and dragging people away by force.

Wang Sumei's husband Tan Yunju was beaten last October 12 after he refused to sign. On January 18, Wang provided a video that showed more than ten men kicking Tan and his daughter in a room, and then dragging Tan outside where they beat him into unconsciousness.

Wang said that while her husband was in the hospital, some people came and dragged him to the lakeside where they ordered him to sign on the spot or be drowned in the lake. Tan signed his name.

More than ten villagers in Batou alone said in interviews with this reporter that they had also ended up in the hospital.

Many people in the village of Penghu, in the town of Zhaodun in western Pizhou, mentioned that in July 2007, the wife of villager Wang was beaten to death while obstructing the seizure of their land. The town gave more than 600,000 in compensation. Wang has since moved elsewhere.

On January 15, the eastern side of the village of Wuchang, Yunhe, was a broad expanse of water, with wheat shoots clearly visible through the ice. To the south of the farmland, the Thousand Island Lake Park was under construction. Villagers said that at the end of November, the town government gave instructions for more than 10,000 mu (670 hectares) to be flooded. The subdistrict office in Xutang verified that the farmland had previously been unpolluted rice fields.

The villagers suggested that the flooding was done for a construction project: the land could be claimed to be wasteland flooded by low-lying water. They also said it was done to dispel any hope the villagers might have for the land requisition process.

Last year, villagers in Bachang, which lies near Shagou Lake, complained to the Xuzhou Land and Resources Bureau that the government had begun to dig a lake that occupied more than 1,300 mu (87 hectares) of good farmland. The Xuzhou bureau instructed Pizhou to investigate. The feedback from the Pizhou Bureau of Land and Resources claimed that the use of more than 80 mu (5.3 hectares) was in violation of the law and that it had filed a case for investigation. However, it gave no explanation for the more than 1,000 mu that remained.

On January 15, cranes and earth-moving equipment were still at work digging a lake on the land the villagers reported.

A village removed, as villagers "go upstairs"
Villagers who moved into the apartments believed that they had become "unclassifiable": compensation was impractical, and farmers said that they felt uneasy without land

As Pizhou's New District was developed, many villages lost their land, and a few were moved in their entirety.

In Hewan, before the killing, more than 2,500 mu of farmland had been taken over, out of a total of over 3,000 mu. The village of Likou, also in Yunhe, saw all of its arable land confiscated by 2007.

According to people in towns like Yunhe and Chenlou, the towns had rented the farmland to the industrial districts that now occupied it, rather than legally requisitioning the land. The price generally ranged from 600 to 1,000 yuan per mu.

The government built "farmers' apartments" for the farmers who had lost their land and their villages.

The entire village of Batou was moved, with compensation ranging between 500 and 800 yuan per mu. The villagers could purchase space in farmers' apartments - roughly 30 square meters per person for a price of 1,300 yuan per square meter. They said that even added together, the compensation they had received was insufficient.

Xu Chuanling, a thirty-five-year-old woman from Batou, committed suicide last October. On January 20, Xu's mother-in-law said that they received a total of 307,000 yuan in compensation for the 262 square meters in two separate residences the eleven people in their family used to live in, but when they could not afford new apartments after the old homes were torn down, Xu killed herself.

On January 29, Xu's father-in-law Wang Ziyuan said that after she died, the village gave them two 100-square-meter residences free of charge, saying it was for the children's education. However, the village made them stay in a hotel for ten days, during which time it would not let them contact the outside.

On January 13, the "Zhangcun Hewan Farmers' Apartments" were completed in north Hewan. More than thirty seven-storey buildings were clustered together, separated from each other by less than ten meters.

The villagers said that around half a year ago, the town government had divvied up the village households among local officials so as to move everyone in Zhangcun and Hewan into the apartments. In east Batou, a few dozen apartment buildings had been finished and were now home to many villagers.

Villagers from Batou said that they had not adapted. Used to raising pigs and chickens, they did not feel right living in an apartment building.

Some of the younger, stronger villagers left to find work elsewhere, and those who did not leave simply sat at home, worrying. On January 13, Xue Yinli of Hewan said that a farmer's life is tilling the land, so without land, they feel uneasy.

Strategies for policy evasion
The Land Management official said that the government is constantly changing land classification, from basic farmland to arable land, and then to wasteland

After the killing in Hewan, the Nanjing supervisory office of the Ministry of Land and Resources visited Pizhou a second time to investigate illegal land seizures.

On January 15, an employee of the Pizhou office confessed that as member of the Bureau of Land and Resources, he was afraid the entire time that any mistakes would result in an arrest.

Last October, Pizhou was criticized by the Nanjing supervisory office for failing in its duty to control illegal land seizure. Pizhou had been named second on a list of eight illegal land seizure cases that the Ministry of Land and Resources submitted in 2007.

It was then that the Jiangsu Provincial Bureau of Land and Resources designated illegal land seizures in Pizhou as "serious."

However, Pizhou's illegal seizure of land did not stop.

"We were under pressure from the leadership to meet land requisition targets, and if we didn't, we couldn't hold on to our positions," said one employee of the Pizhou Bureau of Land and Resources, who also said that in recent years, the Bureau had tried to meet targets any way that it could.

According to the Land Administration Law [Article 45], requisition of basic farmland, other cultivated land exceeding 35 hectares, and other land exceeding 70 hectares is subject to approval by the State Council, and requisition of other land is subject to approval by the governments of provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities, with reports made to the State Council.

On January 20, the employee claimed that over the past few years, no construction land in Pizhou had been reported to the State Council.

Bureau documents from years past show only a few applications for more than 30 hectares; the remaining land use applications were for a just a few hectares to less than twenty. In 2007 and 2008, no approved construction land exceeded 50 hectares.

However, according to Xuzhou's Master Plan for Land Use, the amount of arable land to be given for construction use in Pizhou between 1997 and 2010 was 27,600 mu (1,840 hectares). Subtracting 15,600 mu for major national water conservancy projects leaves just 12,000 mu for city development.

Yet nearly 30 square kilometers (3,000 hectares), most of which was farmland, had been added to the framework of Pizhou's New District.

On January 15, a source within the Pizhou Bureau of Land and Resources revealed that because the state kept a tight rein on arable land, the municipal government would alter its master plan every few years, constantly adjusting the location of protected basic farmland areas and general arable land. For example, basic farmland would be reclassified as arable land, and arable land would be reclassified as wasteland.

According to national principles for equitable compensation, land requisitions required an equal amount of the same quality of land to be offered in return. In Pizhou, this meant "developing" new farmland on hilltops, slopes, gullies, and waterlines in its northern mountain region and designating it for agricultural use.

The Bureau source disclosed that when the Ministry of Land and Resources conducted its inspection last November, Pizhou put up walls around basic farmland in the towns of Paoche and Yunhe and dumped construction waste inside to make the land appear as it it were already in use and to set the stage for actual use of the land in the future.

Camouflaged construction sites in Zhaodun

Locals said that in November, the city paid villagers 50 yuan per day to construction sites near the Thousand Island Lake with straw and corn stalks to fool the Ministry's remote sensing satellites. Work on the sites resumed once the inspection had concluded.

On January 24, a villager in Batou said that after the death in Hewan on January 7, the Yunhe government hired villagers to put the straw back out again.

The investigation revealed that straw, corn stalks, and even camouflage netting were also used to evade detection in other villages and towns.

On January 13, a villager in Penghu said that last November, villages in the area extending southward from Zhaodun to Yitang hired villagers to spread straw and cornstalks onto cement roadways and to cover construction sites with black netting.

A faux-Zhongnanhai administrative center
Chang'an Road out in front. Thousand Island Lake off to one side. A small group of classical buildings lies inside the campus. The center exceeded its approved area by a factor of ten

At the same time Pizhou was requisitioning land, many landmark buildings took shape in the city. The Pizhou Administrative Center, which occupies more than 600 mu, is known as "Pizhou's Zhongnanhai."

The Administrative Center went into use in February 2008, but only one sign currently graces its main gate: "Pizhou Visitor Reception Center." Large characters in the center that read "Serve The People" form a reminder that this is the seat of government.

Twenty-two buildings and halls of various sizes are inside the compound. These include a cafeteria, a reception center, and leaders' apartments, all of which are done in traditional Chinese architectural styles.

The city party committee and municipal government are joined by individual buildings devoted to government agencies like the Construction Bureau and the Finance Bureau.

An inside source said that signs for the city government and its departments were hung inside the compound so as not to appear too eye-catching.

The Administrative Center's matching residential area occupies 700 mu and contains schools and service facilities.

The Thousand Island Lake project in back of the Pizhou Administrative Center is the largest wetland park in Pizhou. To the west of the center is the Shagou Lake Model Agricultural Park. The source said that the entire Shagou Lake district would be constructed in imitation of Beijing's Beihai and Nanhai.

In front of the Administrative Center is a six-lane road (plus two emergency lanes) that has the name "Chang'an Road."

Because of the scene described above, the Pizhou Administrative Center is known among locals as "Pizhou's Zhongnanhai."

The Administrative Center was reportedly built at a cost of 150 million yuan by the Jiangsu Golden Bridge Group, which then gave it to the Pizhou government for its own use. In return, the Pizhou government gave the company more than 300 mu in the old city for free.

The application reveals that the center exceeded its approved area by a factor of ten. According to land use estimates in Xuzhou's 2006 construction plan, Pizhou's administrative service center project was to occupy 4 hectares (60 mu), contain 28,000 square meters of floor space, and cost 68 million yuan.

On January 21, a Pizhou Bureau of Land and Resources official who requested anonymity said that the Administrative Center was first approved as a party committee and municipal government project, but subsequent approvals were illicitly obtained under the names of other entities. In addition, occupied land frequently exceeded what had been approved.

On November 22, 2007, three months before the Administrative Center was completed, the city of Xuzhou issued a document barring party and government agencies from occupying farmland or moving into landmark buildings.

The land occupied by the center had previously been part of Shagou's contract responsibility farmland. The "Shagou Lake Model Agriculture Park" now occupies more than 4,000 mu. An inside source revealed that prior to 2007, the park had been named "Shagou Lake Water Park," but after being criticized by name in the 2007 report issued by the Ministry of Land and Resources, it had changed to its present name (and is classified as "basic farmland").

However, while the gardens contain artificial landscapes and entertainment facilities, there is no farming equipment to be found.

The three gates to the "model agriculture park" reportedly cost of 15 million yuan, and the 69-meter-tall Longxin Pavilion inside the park is yet another emblem of Pizhou.

According to the website of the Pizhou government, Li Lianyu visited the gardens last April 23 to decide upon locations for the entertainment facilities. Commercial investment paid for the construction of the facilities, which included airplane and swing rides.

Land brings wealth in the construction of a city
Build basic installations to create prime locations and increase land values, and then sell them off. Land prices in Pizhou reportedly doubled in three years

Pizhou's New District, currently under construction, is about fifteen kilometers from the old city center.

Pizhou party secretary Li Lianyu reportedly asked that the New District have a single, unified image and that its buildings make their mark in the city.

A 10,000-seat stadium, a city plan exhibition hall, and the new Pizhou Middle School took shape in the area surrounding the Administrative Center. Opposite the center in the Aishan Scenic Area is the "Avenue of Good Fortune."

Stone carvings reading "top-ranked in the nation" and "champion at all levels" line the road, which extends for 958 meters, bordered by 9,999 floral wreaths and decorated with lotus and ruyi insignias. Pizhou calls this the longest white marble avenue in the world. Locals call it the "lotus jade avenue."*

The avenue is called one of Pizhou's top ten pieces of architecture. It was built at a cost of 70 million yuan.

Other projects in the top ten include the 30-million-yuan Mt. Jiulong Hotel (known among locals as the "Aishan Summer Palace"), and the 40-million-yuan Jiulong Fountain, which they say is the tallest fountain in the world.*

When Li Lianyu told the media in 2006 about his goals for city construction, he said that a major component was managing the city by generating wealth through land.

The city government monopolized the first-class land market and took a market-oriented approach to the use of land for construction by putting basic installations into the surrounding area to create a prime location that elevated the price of land. Then it was put up for sale.

Eight schools and other buildings are currently under construction in the New District. Pizhou's government website claims that this is an important step for spurring popular acceptance and development in the New District.

In response to the massive amount of construction, both housing and land prices in Pizhou have doubled in the last three years. A Zhejiang businessman said that one mu of land that used to cost 400,000 yuan now goes for more than a million.

At an auction run by the Pizhou Bureau of Land and Resources in the first half of 2006, 500 mu of land in Batou was snatched up by the Fuguiniao Group, and 300 mu in east Liubaohe and 600 mu of farmland in Likou were sold for 370,000 yuan per mu.

Today, these plots all have residential neighborhoods built on them that sell for an average of 2,800 yuan per square meter. For housing in good locations, this can rise to more than 4,000 yuan.

By 2006, Pizhou had sold off 36 tracts that brought in a total of 462 million yuan in revenue. According to publicly-available data, Pizhou took in more than 600 million yuan in land sales in 2006, and in 2007 it broke 800 million.

Data from 2005 shows that city construction contributed as much as 14.4% to Pizhou's GDP growth.

Iron-fisted policies drive expansion
Those who didn't perform were replaced, so officials rotated in every six months. The party secretary's iron fist was infamous in the region

The news media reported that Pizhou's economic growth had led northern Jiangsu for several years in a row. Last July, the term "Pizhou speed" was created after Pizhou was listed for the first time as one of the country's top 100 counties (and county-level cities).

The man behind "Pizhou speed" was the "iron-fisted party secretary," Li Lianyu. Named mayor of Pizhou in 2001, he became party secretary the following year and has remained in that position to this day.

In 2001, Pizhou's urban district covered an area of 19 square kilometers. That year, Li proposed a goal of "building another Pizhou in five years."

Pizhou recruited experts from Tsinghua University, Southeast University, and abroad to design plans for the New District.

For its city management, Pizhou then turned to generating wealth through land. Propaganda slogans like "Productivity through city construction" and "City construction is economic construction" can still be found across the city.

Within five years, more than 500 major projects had been launched in Pizhou, and a number of new development districts were in the works. Beginning in 2001, when Pizhou broke ground on an economic development area, the following five years saw a main industrial park take shape in the northern subdistrict of Xutang, and subsidiary zones created in seven towns.

"An industrial park in every town." On January 18, a source within the Pizhou municipal government said that towns and villages adopted the urban center's model of building new districts, economic development districts, and industrial parks.

By 2007, Li Lianyu declared that the goal to "build another Pizhou in five years" had been attained. The city had been enlarged to cover an area of 50 square kilometers.

Local officials believe that the pace of construction was closely tied to Li's iron-fisted policies.

In the world of Pizhou politics, Li was known for requiring sixteen-hour days from government staffers, or they would be free to find work elsewhere. If the work he assigned was not completed, he would immediately find replacements.

On one occasion, a hospital director was asked why the start of a particular project had been delayed. He answered that he did not have the money. Li Lianyu said, "If you don't have the money, then leave, and I'll find someone who can get the money."

It is said that officials in Pizhou were replaced practically every six months.

On January 13, an employee of the city party committee said that the standing committee would hold meetings every week, during which Li Lianyu would issue detailed work instructions to the party, government, people's congress, and political consultative conference leaders, as well as the heads of government agencies. This was known as "following through with one voice."

Local officials said that Li's administrative style had an effect on village and town leaders as well. Lou Congrui, former party secretary of the town of Yunhe, was called "a second Li Lianyu."

In 2007, Li Peizeng, branch secretary of the village of Hewan, was relieved of his position by Lou for "lax land requisition" and replaced with Sun Xiaojun. This year on January 7, Sun allegedly organized a mob to seize land by force, resulting in one death. After the incident, Lou was dismissed.

Pizhou's expansion campaign is still going on.

"Commercial" lust for growth continues to expand the city
One industrial park had only been open for three months when the government hired farmers to act as workmen to meet an inspection team, to the amusement of locals

Pizhou continued to expand.

After growing to 50 square kilometers in 2007, Li Lianyu said that the next step would be to extend the city framework another 98 square kilometers. A government document showed that the city's master plan called for a total area of 331 square kilometers.

A senior Pizhou official said that at the start of every year, the city government would establish ten or more "investment bureaus" that would travel the country seeking investors. But their catch was slim and limited mostly to chemical and refining industries.

On January 15, fewer than ten percent of the rows upon rows of factories in Gonghu, Paoche, and Yunhe industrial parks that stretched for nearly forty kilometers along the Xuzhou-Lianyungang highway were actually in operation.

At most of the sites, gateless walls surrounded factory compounds overgrown with weeds. Some did contain actual buildings, but these were empty of equipment. Villagers tended animals and grew vegetables in some of the empty buildings.

According to a report in the August 13, 2006 edition of the Xuzhou Daily, the Golden Phoenix Furniture Industrial Park covers 1,100 mu (73 hectares) and was built at a cost of 260 million yuan. It is now completely covered in long weeds.

On January 16, a resident of the town of Guanhu said that the industrial park had been open for less than three months. When upper-level inspectors had come in the past, the city had hired them to put on work clothes and act as laborers, to the amusement of locals.

A source within the Pizhou Bureau of Land and Resources said that most of the businesses that had purchased factories were actually in search of low-cost grounds that they could turn around and sell in a few years when prices rose.

Regarding the illegal seizure of land, an office worker at the Pizhou Bureau of Land and Resources said icily on January 13 that he knew nothing beyond the fact that the farmland involved in the January 7 killing had not been pre-approved. Asked a second time, he claimed that business section staffers and the officials in charge had all gone to a meeting in Nanjing. This reporter subsequently made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the Pizhou party and government leadership.

According to publicly available reports, leading economic indicators have shown Pizhou climbing the ranks in Jiangsu Province since 2003, and its "overall strength" has leapt far to the front of northern Jiangsu.

Last year, after Pizhou was named one of the top 100 counties in the country, interest in copying and analyzing the "Pizhou phenomenon" took off nationwide. More than twenty provinces and 300 cities and counties reportedly visited Pizhou in search of answers.

A source within the Pizhou Land Bureau was not particularly optimistic about the visits. To him, taking over large tracts of farmland for other projects is "a project that kills off descendants." He thinks that in the future, farmland that has been occupied may yet be tilled again.


  1. "Lotus Jade" 莲玉 is a homophone for 连玉, the given name of party secretary Li Lianyu. It's also a near homophone for 炼狱, "purgatory," but that pun seems less likely in this case. (added 2010.02.05)
  2. The claim for the fountain is doubtful.

Edit (2010.02.04): Corrected several "township" designations to "town".

Update (2010.02.05): View a photo gallery with images of Pizhou's overbuilt government compounds and the Shagou agriculture park on this forum post.

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