China puts hundreds of uninhabited islands up for rent

Jessie Yeung and Han Xu, CNNPublished 26th August 2020
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(CNN) — China's northeastern Liaoning province is home to hundreds of uninhabited islands -- and they're available to rent.
The Liaoning Finance and Natural Resources departments issued a statement in July that circulated widely on Chinese social media this week, listing "usage fees" for the uninhabited islands.
Though the islands, like most land and resources in China, are owned by the government, they can be leased out to individuals. Their prices go as low as 3,700 yuan (about $535) per hectare a year, according to Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.
Liaoning is home to the largest number of islands in northern China -- 633 islands in total, of which 44 are inhabited and the remaining 589 are empty. Though some of the islands lie off the coast in the Yellow Sea, many are scattered along the Yalu River that separates the province from neighboring North Korea.
Liaoning's capital, Shenyang, is about 430 miles east of Beijing, about as far as Boston to Washington, DC.
In recent years, pressure on marine resources in the region has increased, and some of the islands and their surrounding marine territory have been "used inefficiently and extensively," said the Xinhua report.
View of Bangchui Island off the coast of Dalian city, in Liaoning province in 2009.
View of Bangchui Island off the coast of Dalian city, in Liaoning province in 2009.
maginechina Limited/Alamy
On the higher end of the scale, the islands can cost as much as 25 million yuan (about $3.62 million) per hectare a year, according to the report. The price depends on several factors, including how much it will be developed and for what purposes.
The lowest you could go is $535, by choosing the cheapest options out of all the factors. For instance, it means choosing the lowest-ranking islands on a six-tier scale, which is sorted based on "socioeconomic development"; the higher the rank, the more expensive it is.
But simply ponying up cash isn't enough. The island would also have to meet the standards for "primeval use," meaning it doesn't require land reclamation or other types of land development that could push the price up by 20 times. This requirement acts as a deterrent for development, to instead encourage environmental protection, said Xinhua.
Finally, it depends on what you want to use the island for -- tourism, agriculture, fishing, renewable energy, urban development or others. There are nine possible categories of uses, each with differing price points.
Tourism and entertainment are the most commonly chosen purposes for these rented islands, said Yu Xingguang, a member of China's Third Institute of Oceanography, according to state-run media Global Times.
The prospect of owning an island made a buzz on Chinese social media platform Weibo -- but officials warned that it wasn't as straightforward as signing a contract and packing your bags.
The point of releasing this statement, and designing such a complex pricing system, is to ensure better protection for the islands -- meaning prospective tenants have to undergo a long and stringent application process.
The renter would need to submit project reports to demonstrate compliance with environmental regulation, as well as specific development and utilization plans. Only after a close review are tenants approved and given the keys to their new uninhabited island.
"The values of islands are carefully calculated after field research, and ecological factors, such as rare species, fresh water, beaches and other resources also have to be taken into account in the overall plan," said Yu in the Global Times report.
China has garnered international scrutiny in recent years for its surge in dredging and land reclamation to build artificial islands, which environmentalists say wreak havoc on marine habitats and ecosystems.
In 2018, after damning reports of the environmental impact, the central government announced it would stop approving commercial land reclamation; the following year, it launched initiatives to restore coral reefs damaged by land reclamation.