Far from the madding crowd: China's rich seek own islands

Far from the madding crowd: China's rich seek own islands

GUANLONG ISLAND, China - As sunset falls on his private island in the South China Sea, entrepreneur Lin Dong likes few things better than to lounge on a hammock strung between two trees as waves lap the shore.

"I don't like noise, and I'm not a fan of the pollution in crowded cities," he said. "The island life suits me much better".

Lin made his fortune after founding a medical equipment company and is one of a small but growing number of wealthy Chinese acquiring their own islands.

Thin with a greying goatee, the 42-year-old says uncertainty over bureaucratic land ownership restrictions blights his fruit tree-strewn paradise.

"I don't dare to invest in the island, anything I build on it could be demolished," he told AFP.

There are at least 600 island owners in China, he estimates, mostly corporations planning tourism or fishing development, but also individuals who build private clubhouses to entertain friends and officials.

But Lin counts himself amongst an elite group who buy them for pleasure alone - and has founded China's first association of island owners.

Its members "love nature, beaches, and lying on our backs listening to music", added Lin, who favours melodic singer-songwriters.

Lawyer Wang Yue, 41, commutes from China's commercial hub Shanghai to a one square kilometre uninhabited island about 40 kilometres from the coast.

"On the island at night you can see a sky full of stars, and the moon rising from the east. That's a great feeling," he said.

A few weeks ago Lin arranged the second "Chinese Island Owners Forum", on the sidelines of a luxury goods trade fair touting sports cars, yachts and private helicopters in his home province of Guangdong.

Beside a small artificial beach, models in bikinis and feathery wings lined up behind the panellists and a host declared: "A dream of a private kingdom is in all our hearts.

"That dream is of a beautiful island."

Playing around

China claims 14,500 kilometres of coastline and 7,300 islands of more than 500 square metres - all owned by the government and many in the disputed South China Sea where it is also building atop reefs to back up its territorial ambitions.

Aspiring Robinson Crusoes were in legal limbo until 2010 when a new law allowed the sale of island land use rights, valid for 50 years.

The eastern province of Zhejiang held its first "island auction" a year later, with one company paying 20 million yuan for the contract to an uninhabited isle of more than 2.5 hectares.

Several other provinces have followed suit, but Lin said that such permits tend to be awarded to companies rather than individuals.

"We hope the government will come out with policies to support us, or at the very least won't oppress us," he said.

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