How a pristine Chinese mountain fell prey to the country's property boom

Illegal constructions on Changyao Mountain in Yunnan province.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Passengers flying over Changyao Mountain in Yunnan province will see a huge construction site sprawling across what was a lush green landscape a little over a decade ago.

The hillside on the east banks of Dianchi Lake, the largest expanse of fresh water in southwest China, was a natural wonder and a haven for a wide variety of wildlife including squirrels, wolves, bears and all kinds of birds. The majestic pine trees stood there like giants, offering locals sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the nearby provincial capital Kunming.

But now it has been turned into a “concrete mountain”, with cranes towering over dozens of unfinished villas installed like concrete boxes and surrounded by rows of completed apartment blocks. The soil has been dug up and piled here and there, covered with green plastic sheets.

The scandal came to light in May, when environmental inspectors found 813 villas and 294 blocks of flats had been built illegally on the mountainside, occupying 230 hectares (568 acres) of land, or 92 per cent of the mountain’s surface.

Environmentalists and observers said the destruction of the mountain epitomised a growth-obsessed development model that has been prevalent in Yunnan and other parts of China in the past few decades.

Following an investigation by the environmental police, Yunnan Communist Party chief Ruan Chengfa ordered a “resolute rectification” to correct the “problem of excessive development” as soon as possible.

By late May, at least 47 villas that were under construction had been torn down and 36 completed ones demolished. Local officials also announced a September deadline to tear down the other illegal buildings on the mountain, a primary conservation area, and suspended the construction of 390 villas in the outer or secondary zone, where commercial buildings are not allowed. Officials have also ordered trees to be planted in the area to help restore the ecosystem.

Environmentalists said the environmental destruction around Dianchi Lake began with mining, quarrying and chemical manufacturing in the 1980s.

Officials have ordered the development to be torn down.
PHOTO: South China Morning Posts

“The water of Dianchi Lake was pristine and there were fish and shrimps in the lake, but it was gradually polluted by the chemical factories built along the lake in the 1990s and nobody would drink the water,” said a local environmentalist, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

According to him, the water quality in Dianchi fell to “below Grade V” – the lowest in China’s water safety standard meaning it is unfit for agriculture and industrial use – in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the lake was one of the most polluted water bodies in China.

The local authorities closed many of the factories in the 2000s in an attempt to tackle pollution, but at the same time property developers started a second wave of construction.

“Kunming has a nice climate and its natural scenery is very beautiful and that’s why it has attracted tourists from all over the country, including those who want to buy a house and stay,” said a Kunming-based environmentalist.

He said that while the locals welcomed the wealth the property boom brought, they had not anticipated the unwanted consequences – a hefty environmental bill.

“Local officials want to develop the economy … and real estate is the most profitable way, but they need to balance development and conservation,” the environmentalist said.

A worker is pictured at the construction site.
PHOTO: South China Morning Posts

Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University, said such problems were common in the country.

“The problem of illegal construction always exists because of the vast interests involved and local [officials] have their career tied to economic growth and this has given them huge impetus to put growth above everything else,” Gu said.

“Besides, power is highly concentrated. It doesn’t matter whether [the project] is a tourism resort, a polluting factory, or real estate, developers can start construction once they have the approval from officials, and it’s hard for the local environmental bureaus to stop it.”

Vested interests are often so entrenched at a local level that even environmental inspectors sent by Beijing are given the cold shoulder.

When central environmental inspectors went to Yunnan in 2016, they pointed out that some real estate projects had encroached on the primary conservation area, but this intervention was not enough to stop construction.

Two years later more than 160 villas were built in the secondary conservation area, and at the same time local regulations were changed to allow the development of buildings “for tourism, leisure and cultural purposes” in the secondary conservation area.

As a result, Kunming Northstar Group, a major local developer, built 437 villas in the area as “health care homes and a sanatorium”.

When the scandal was made public last month, the most senior official who was held accountable was the party chief of the Dianchi Lake National Tourist Resort. No city officials or investors have been blamed.

Chen Daoyin, a political commentator and a former professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said officials were often able to shift the blame for scandals of this nature.

“Local officials and their partners in crime can get away as long as they take some actions to give Beijing face and show that they have addressed the environmental problem,” Chen said.

“If they truly wanted heads to roll, then too many people would be punished,” Gu said. “So it depends on [whether] Beijing has the political will and if it considers [the issue] a priority.”

In 2018 the leadership in the northwestern province of Shaanxi were caught up in a major corruption scandal that centred on an illegal development in a nature reserve.

The mountain was once a haven for wildlife on the shores of Lake Dianchi.
PHOTO: South China Morning Posts

Officials defied repeated orders from President Xi Jinping to demolish the holiday villas. Then the local party chief Zhao Zhengyong was found guilty of accepting the equivalent of US$89 million (S$120 million) in bribes from developers and was given a suspended death sentence.

Zhang Zhengxiang, a local environmentalist who has fought against pollution in the Dianchi area for four decades, said he was saddened by the destruction of Changyao Mountain.

The real estate project formed part of the wider Colourful Yunnan programme, a tourism initiative involving a total investment of 22 billion yuan (S$4.6 billion) and covering 1,067 hectares, about the same size as Long Beach in New York.

Zhang said the project had seen 30,000 locals uprooted from their homes to make way for tourist facilities, new housing and a wetland park.

He said went to the site every three days to witness and record the destruction and sent more than 2,000 complaints to authorities but to little effect.

“Yunnan provincial and Kunming city officials live near the lake. Why did they wait until the mountain became a ‘concrete mountain’ and the environmental inspectors came to stop the destruction?” he asked.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.