“The gift from the sea”: through land reclamation, China keeps growing and growing

Yangshan Deep Water Port: not so long ago, this land didn't exist. Image: Wade Shepard.

China has undergone more than three decades of unprecedented rapid growth. Literally. The country is expanding.

Hundreds of square kilometres are added onto China each year, as coastlines are extended farther and farther out to sea. Massive amounts of land are being reclaimed to build new cities, ports, resorts, and industrial zones.

Dubbed by the domestic media as a “gift from the sea,” land reclamation has become 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 urbanisation,” says Harry den Hartog, the author of Shanghai New Towns, who is currently researching land reclamation in China for the Netherlands’ Delft University. “For planners, this is a 'tabula rasa,' where you can build whatever you like on a white sheet of paper.”

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 per cent with artificial land. In the current era, cities all across China are creating new land to develop for urbanisation initiatives – and the profits are huge.

Nanhui New City, Shanghai, stands on reclaimed land. Image: Wade Shepard.

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 $1.77bn, bringing the new special economic zone's total earnings through land sales up to $37.4bn. Another record breaking land sale in Hainan saw an artificially created parcel go for over $1.5m per m2. So, the economic impetus for land reclamation is clear: making land makes money.

In 2010, the coastal city of Longkou, in Shandong province, found its urbanisation 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 440m m3 of soil and stone from a nearby mountain and dump it into the bay.


A few years and over $3bn later, seven new islands rise above the water’s surface, providing an additional 35.2km2 of urban construction land that could be sold off to developers at a premium rate. By 2020, some 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 $50bn.

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 133km2 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 18,000km of coastline. A few examples:

  • Tianjin port, the largest in north China, was constructed on 107km2 of land that was reclaimed from Bohai Bay.
  • An expanse of land twice the size of Los Angeles has already been reclaimed by Tangshan to create the Caofeidian new economic zone. There are plans to add on an additional San Francisco-sized portion by 2020.
  • In Guangdong Province, Dongguan and Shantou are tacking on 44.6km2 and 24 km2 respectively, while the new Qianhai FTZ, in Shenzhen, is being built on 15 km2 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, totalling 1,817 km2. That’s the size of London and Munich combined.

New growth at Nanhui New City. Image: Wade Shepard.

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. It would dredge up sediment and dump it upon the submerged shoals in question, thus turning them into islands which could then be claimed – destabilising the entire region in the process. 

There are three main ways to reclaim land from the sea. The first is to excavate soil and stone from the mainland, shipping it out, and dumping it on the current coastline or at the edges of existing islands.

The second is 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.

Last but not least, you can put up barrier walls outside of the mouth of a river, and then allow 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 4m 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 point of breeching its so-called “red-line” – the 120m hectares of arable land that must be left available for agriculture. This food security quota isn’t adjusted when land is added onto the country – so filling in the sea with soil is a way to get more development land while leaving existing farmland intact.

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

As one might expect, 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.

Yangshan Deep Water Port is another area of Shanghai built on reclaimed land. Image: Wade Shepard.

What’s more, 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,” Delft’s Harry 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 700km2 of land – roughly the size of Singapore – was being created each year. But since then, the amount of land being reclaimed has been dialled 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 200km2 each year.

But that’s still a massive amount. And 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 these have totalled 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.

Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities of China".

Images courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.