“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.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.