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Solution of Last Resort

Hainan has been ordered to remove artificial resort islands due to ecological damage, but some claim this will cause even more destruction to the environment

By Huang Xiaoguang Updated Jun.1

After a new round of environmental inspections of controversial land reclamation and island creation projects off the coast of Hainan Province in the South China Sea, officials ordered the removal of some projects and others to fix the environmental damage they caused.  

Some experts disagree that removing already reclaimed land is the solution, arguing that it could create even more damage, while the developers are also crying foul, claiming they had the correct permissions to build resorts and entertainment facilities on artificial islands.  

Hainan released a report on October 19, 2020 detailing plans to restore ecological damage caused by land reclamation. It came after the third Central Environmental Inspection Team, or “green team” under the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, exposed the ecological damage in the island province. Inspectors had already rebuked the island province, known for its resort industry, for rampant land reclamation, according to a CGTN report in May 2020.  

Nine land reclamation projects were targeted. Wanning Sun Moon Island, Phoenix Island, and Haikou Gourd Island were ordered to be completely removed and the environments restored to their previous condition. Six other projects were ordered to fix their environmental problems. 
In late February 2021 shortly after Chinese New Year, workers were busy on the 300,000-square-meter Gourd Island. Work to remove the artificial island is slated to be complete before August. It generated strong resistance from developers and concerns about further environmental damage caused by the demolition itself.  

On November 20, 2020, Gourd Island developer Hainan Zhonghui Hongji Investment Company appealed to the government of Haikou, capital of Hainan, to call a halt to the demolition. “It was a legal act to sell land to our company, but it’s an administrative decree to remove the island,” Wang Nianqing, a senior manager at the company, told NewsChina.  

She added that while her company was still negotiating with the local government on the land transfer contract, trucks were already sneaking onto the island to start the process of removing it.  

A former official at the Hainan provincial environmental protection agency told our reporter that the new round of environmental restoration in Hainan faces three main challenges: scientific planning, protection of the legitimate rights of enterprises and proper treatment of historic issues, which mainly refers to projects that did not have licenses or the correct permissions.  

Island Fever 
Gourd Island was designed as a tourist resort. In 2008, Haikou proposed constructing an island resort from reclaimed land in the eastern shoals of the Haikou Bay area. It planned to construct the seven-star Lighthouse Hotel, a duty-free shopping center and an international conference venue. The Lighthouse Hotel would be 440 meters high and was slated for completion in December 2014, according to official documents.  

After the first round of central environmental inspections, however, Haikou city government ordered developers to dismantle the temporary construction roads to the island. In late June 2018, the roads were removed and 440,000 square meters of navigation channels were cleared. 

Wang Nianqing told the reporter that after the first round of environmental inspections, Zhongke Construction Company, the majority shareholder in Zhonghui Hongji Investment Company, proposed turning Gourd Island into an “educational island.” 

“Zhongke was affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which planned to build an academic incubation center on the island,” she said. “But Zhongke went bankrupt in 2019 and the proposal was shelved.”  

Shortly afterwards, Gourd Island underwent a second round of central environmental inspections. In October 14, 2020, Haikou Ecological Environmental Bureau announced that Gourd Island would be removed to improve the marine ecological environment.  

Before it was also ordered to be completely removed, Phoenix Island project in the city of Sanya, Hainan’s main tourist destination, was slapped with several ecological restoration orders. On December 23, 2017, the fourth environmental inspection team informed Hainan Province that the Phoenix Island project had obtained marine use rights in the name of building a passenger port, but its actual purpose was real estate projects and hotels.  

“Because of the reclamation, the western area of Sanya Bay has been eroded by currents and [now] requires a large amount of money to fill the bay with sand,” the inspection report said. 
The former official with the Hainan provincial environmental protection agency, who asked for anonymity, told the reporter that the previous rounds of central environmental inspections had suggested the removal of Gourd Island. “When senior officials from ministries and commissions under the State Council visited Hainan, orders were given to demolish Phoenix Island, Gourd Island and Wanning Sun Moon Island,” he told our reporter.  

NewsChina reporters contacted the Ministry of Ecology and Environment for comment to learn more about the restoration plans for the three artificial islands but received no reply as of press time.  

Restore or Remove? 
Pei Zhiqiang, former director of Xinhua News Agency’s Hainan bureau, told NewsChina that the Gourd Island development had generated a public backlash as soon as it was announced. The reclamation would damage the sea views of Wanlü Park in Haikou, one of the city’s major public recreation areas. Gourd Island obtained the marine use right in October 2009. Construction started in 2010, and the island was finished in 2011.  

The Lighthouse Hotel project on the island, however, never started. A local resident who visited Gourd Island to fish told the reporter that the island was covered with weeds and there were no constructions except makeshift buildings.  

In April 2017, Haikou land resources agency sent a letter to Zhonghui Hongji to demand land-transfer fees and liquidated damages of 530 million yuan (US$81m).  

In 2016, the Lighthouse Hotel remained a key investment project listed by the local development and reform commission. In the second year, it was criticized by the central environmental inspection team. “I strongly resisted construction of the artificial island after reclamation 10 years ago because it would damage the local environment, but nowadays I have mixed feelings after hearing news of the demolition,” Pei said. “Both the construction and the demolition are a waste of taxpayers’ money.”  

According to Haikou Development and Reform Commission, it will cost roughly 227 million yuan (US$35m) to demolish Gourd Island, including the cost of the work and compensation to the developers.  

The developers of Gourd Island and Phoenix Island objected to removal of the reclaimed land because they had obtained construction approvals from government agencies. They argued that even though the artificial islands caused environmental damage, it is unnecessary to demolish the entire islands since they have been finished. 
“From the perspective of Administrative Law, it is a very severe penalty to partly or entirely demolish an island after reclamation [was finished],” said a legal representative of Sanya Phoenix Island International Cruise Port Company.  

According to the Marine Environmental Protection Law, administrative penalties to demolish a sea project or restore it to the former condition are issued under three circumstances: projects which have not been approved by environmental protection agencies, severe damage to the surrounding environment and construction on nature reserves.  

“It’s baffling that the demolition of Phoenix Island does not come under any of these three categories,” he told our reporter on condition of anonymity.  

Secondary Damage 
On December 31, 2020, Sanya Natural Resources Planning Agency held talks with Sanya Phoenix Island International Cruise Port Company about the demolition and compensation, but the negotiation ended up at an impasse.  

“To date, there have been no other examples of removing artificial islands anywhere in the world. The reclamation changes the original landscape and it forms a new ecosystem,” said the former official with the Hainan provincial environmental protection agency. “The demolition will result in secondary changes to the landscape which are likely to be more detrimental than the reclamation.”  

In 2018, the State Council released a notice to strictly control coastal land reclamation and better protect coastal wetlands in which dealing with existing controversial cases was given priority. If projects were already built on reclaimed land, ecological restoration is preferred. Only projects that severely damaged marine ecology should be removed or demolished, according to the notice.  

Wang Yamin, a professor at the Marine College of Shandong University, argued that dismantling the artificial islands is a secondary engineering project that will further damage the environment. “Restoring it to the previous condition is a good way out but there is a misunderstanding,” he told NewsChina. “The changes to the ecological environment are usually irreversible.”  

According to data released by the central environmental inspection teams, the average annual reclamation area in Hainan Province reached 550 hectares before 2013, five times higher than the annual amount of the past 20 years. In 2017, the central environmental inspection team said that government planning in Hainan followed in the footsteps of property developers which have swelled the coffers of the local government at the cost of the environment.  

Wang argued that it is a systemic project to demolish the artificial islands that proved to be environmental and economic problems. “Analysis of advantages and disadvantages from the long-term perspective is crucial and turns out to be a complicated issue of science.”