China's Ministry of Land Resources (MLR)kicked off a 100-day campaign on Monday to crack down on local governments which illegally transfer householders' land to property developers.
The campaign will target those officials who fail to seek authorization from higher authorities for land use and those who flout decrees to expand the size of development zones.
Zhang Xinbao, director of the Land Enforcement and Supervision Department of the Ministry of Land Resources, admitted land violators had been dealt with too leniently in China in the past and pledged to toughen its stance towards corrupt officials.
"Quite a number of violators were fined or disciplined ... a legion of those penalized were at village level. Only in recent years has our enforcement moved to target officials at county and city levels. Last year, two provincial officials were penalized," Zhang said.
Statistics from the MLR show in 2006 alone, 3,094 officials received Party or administrative penalties, taking up 35.6 percent of the total 8,698 between 2,000 and 2006. Another 501 were given criminal sentences, accounting for 41 percent of the total 1,221 in the past seven years. From January to August, 893 officials were penalized and 245 landed criminal charges.
The MLR will expose a number of land violation cases next week to bring shame on perpetrators, the ministry said.
Land violations have evolved into a sticky issue in China as the central government order promulgated in 2004 to implement "the strictest land management policy" has continued to hit a variety of snags at local level.
On one hand, some government officials still have an impulse to attract capital and technology by offering investors cheap or even free land resources, a practice that was rife along the east coast in the early period of China's economic reform and opening-up. On the other, land yields remain a steady source of fiscal revenue for local governments.
Lured by such immediate local interests, some governments have stealthily restored development zones which were closed down years ago or acquiesced the management of legal development zones to invite business for abolished ones.
Since a national overhaul to shut down inefficient or idle development zones began in 2003, the number of development zones in China and their aggregate land size both shrunk by more than 70 percent to 1,568 and 9,949 square kilometers respectively by the end of 2006.
"If we allow violators to get away with their perpetrations, development zones would sprawl rapidly and consume more land," Gan Zangchun, deputy director-general of the country's land inspection authority, warned.
Rapid urbanization has triggered outrage from some farmers who were not properly compensated for the farmland they lost. It also led to a drastic decline in the area of land available for cultivation which prompted the government to set a minimum land area of 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) to feed its people.
Domestic policy makers started to track the speed and scale of new land supply in non-agriculture sectors each year in 2004 to control the total land supply and boost overall macro-economic control.
"Finding a way round authorities' land use supervision is detrimental to the interests of farmers and may spawn misleading economic indicators and disrupt the implementation of macro-economic policies," Gan said.
After four years of double-digit growth, the world's fourth largest economy registered a 11.5-percent rise in GDP in the first half. With its consumer price index, a major barometer of inflation, surging to a ten-year-high of 6.5 percent in August, there is a rising concern that the economy as marched to the edge of overheating.
Land violations have become increasingly discreet in recent years. According to Gan, in the first two years of the policy change (2004-2006) many government officials blatantly approved the illegal use of land. After two decrees were released in 2004 and 2006, such violations became rare but the cases of circumventing laws and regulations started to shoot upwards.
National figures on these perpetrations are still being counted, but a recent overhaul on the newly-added land for construction in 70 cities shows nine percent of the requisitioned land has been put onto the market in the name of leasing to avoid prior approval. In one major city, about 67.4 percent of the land provided to local township enterprises was put on the market in this way.
Gan said that most of the phony lease contracts were signed by township governments, village committees and individual farmers.
"Our stance is very clear. Administrative leaders will be held responsible if they turn a blind eye to land violations or fail to punish perpetrators in line with laws and regulations," Zhang Xinbao said.