Xi’an, the capital city of Shaanxi Province in Northwest China, is under the spotlight again. But this time neither for its international image of being the capital of 13 ancient Chinese dynasties nor its famous Terracotta Warriors, but for wanton illegal construction projects in the ecologically sensitive Qinling Mountains, by which the city and even the province have been nourished for thousands of years as the center of ancient Chinese civilization.
Hundreds of illegal constructions have been demolished in the region this year since the Central and local governments have stepped up efforts to protect the natural environment and adhere to a green and sustainable development policy. According to a Shaanxi Daily report in October, the largest and most eye-catching illegal villa project covered an area of 9,400 square meters and included several buildings, two fishing ponds, a garden decorated with precious trees and cultural relics, and a dog kennel of 78 square meters. Many Chinese netizens joked that the kennel is much bigger than their apartments.
Illegal construction is not a new problem in Qinling Nature Reserve. Many unapproved villas have been built along its northern side since 1997. These villas were built in farms or forests, not only occupying arable land but also creating serious pollution. The Shaanxi Provincial Government once issued a notice in 2003 prohibiting any construction in the region. However, the official notice seemed totally ineffective. In 2018, an investigation team led by Xu Lingyi, deputy head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), found that many real estate projects had mushroomed in Qinling Nature Reserve over the past three to four years.
The Central Government considers illegal construction in the Qinling Mountains to be a serious negative influence. President Xi Jinping has given instructions on stopping rampant illegal villa constructions in Qinling on six occasions, thus leading to the knocking down of all illegal buildings in the area recently. It is good to see that these illegal villas have been demolished finally; it is also disappointing to see that such a work can only be pushed forward by the instructions of a top leader in China.
Illegal construction in Qinling is much more than an environmental issue. Generally speaking, serious environmental issues in China are likely related to business interests and corruption that erode the country’s political foundation. According to a recent announcement made by CCDI, the Qinling case has proved that some local officials in Shaanxi knew about the illegal actions but failed to handle them in a timely manner, while other officials took bribes to help illegal developers get the land or even occupy the land for their own private purposes. Due to their negligence or illegal acts, a number of high-ranking officials in the province have been sacked or probed over corruption. On Nov. 1, a member of the Standing Committee of the CPC Shaanxi Provincial Committee was put under investigation. On Nov. 5, the mayor of Xi’an was also forced to resign.
Qinling is a major east-west mountain range in southern Shaanxi. The mountains provide a natural geological boundary between North and South China, and support a huge variety of plants and animals, such as the giant panda, crested ibis and golden and snub-nosed monkey, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. As an ancient origin of Chinese civilization, the mountains also served as a defense barrier against nomadic attacks from the north in ancient China.
Frankly speaking, environmental destruction in Qinling is not an isolated case in China since almost all local governments are doing the same thing. Growing population and human activities such as residential construction, road construction, tree-felling and tourism development have further worsened the situation. I sincerely hope that Chinese governments at various levels can learn some lessons from the case and stick to an ecological development path.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)