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Economy

China developers build on the sly, flouting green push

On one man-made island, construction continues from dusk to dawn

Construction on an artificial island near Danzhou has stopped, but only officially.

DANZHOU, China -- Environmental concerns over land reclamation in China's tropical island province of Hainan have brought a flurry of resort and condominium work on an artificial island to a halt -- at least until the sun goes down.

Just off the coast of Danzhou, a city roughly two hours by car from the provincial capital of Haikou, a new piece of land is taking shape: Haihua Island, called Ocean Flower Island in English. Built from the seafloor up by major property developer Evergrande Group, the roughly 160 billion yuan ($24.9 billion) project's impressive 7.8 sq. km will include hotels and residences as well as shopping and amusement facilities.

The island is seen employing 100,000 and housing even more when all is said and done. The project as a whole is now 70-80% complete.

New considerations

Hainan is in the midst of an artificial-island boom. Little land suitable for development is left on the island province's natural coastline. While building up new land costs a little over 600 yuan per sq. meter, condos go for 10,000 yuan to 20,000 yuan per sq. meter, making land reclamation a veritable gold mine for developers.

Until the central government got involved, that is. The Ministry of Environmental Protection said in December that Danzhou city officials had flouted regulations by issuing permits for the Haihua Island project, resulting in extensive damage to coral reefs. State-run China Central Television blasted the project in early January for continuing to sell condos even after being chided by the ministry.

Chinese environmental authorities have power on their side. President Xi Jinping has recently spoken of shifting from quantity to quality in economic development and of creating a "beautiful China." Not even regional authorities can ignore an order from the top. In Hainan, 12 localities have said they will stop using growth rates and investment totals to evaluate bureaucrats' performance. Some have made environmental protection the top criterion.

Evergrande seems to have gotten the message. Condos on the island "have been closed since yesterday for renovations," a sales representative said. "We've stopped selling them." Security guarding the bridge connecting Haihua and Hainan proper said entering or even photographing the artificial island was forbidden.

No going back

The sudden halt in construction has led to a loss of customers for the many restaurants near the bridge catering to construction workers, the owner of one complained. "Apparently they're just building in secret now," she said.

A worker hailing from Fujian Province filled in the rest of the picture. "From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., not even workers can enter the island -- we have to help the local bureaucrats save face," the laborer explained. "So we head in starting at 7 p.m. and work until morning."

Those amenable to this schedule are rewarded handsomely by Hainan standards. General laborers bring in at least 4,000 yuan to 5,000 yuan a month, while more skilled workers can pull in 15,000 yuan to 20,000 yuan.

Few in China's increasingly wealthy major cities object to environmental protections, fueling a nationwide conservationist trend that could create opportunities for foreign businesses to apply their advanced environmental technologies. But in a country where rapid growth has created stark class and regional divides, many outside urban centers understandably prefer putting food on the table today to doing without for a green tomorrow. While environmental protection over growth may sound good as a national slogan, undercover construction in Hainan shows that enforcing this line will be no simple task.

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