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China Tries to Cool Torrid Pace of Property Speculation

ZHANG JIHONG was so desperate to own some land somewhere, she paid out $130 to buy postage-stamp-sized plots in 50 American states.

The scheme, called "Own a Piece of America," is among the latest fads in a country where private property officially does not exist but where many make fortunes in real estate speculation.

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Spiraling inflation and economic uncertainty have set Chinese clamoring to make a fast buck and own tangible assets. Many dealers have plunged into real estate development, securing land from local officials in exchange for large sums of money made from selling luxury apartments, commercial space, and villas.

Others like Mrs. Zhang are ready to pay substantial sums for a mere sheet of paper certifying they own a "piece of America" or, under a sister deal, a "piece of [the] Homeland of China."

The former offers a deed to a square-inch plot in every one of the 50 United States. Buying "a piece of Homeland" technically gives the buyer one inch in 36 special land gardens around China, although in fact the owner's name is merely inscribed on a monument and the land remains under state control.

The proud owner of an American land deed, Zhang, a Beijing advertising manager, looks forward to owning property in China. "Individual investment is better than the interference of [government] power in real estate," she says.

In the world's last major communist power, a land mania has thrown China's financial system into peril. During the last year of market-style economic reforms, property speculators under the sponsorship of provincial officials borrowed heavily from state banks for capital investment and land development. Banks overextend themselves

The banks' lending spree left them short of cash to buy grain from farmers, who rebelled in many provinces. Beijing was forced to take tough measures to rein in the fast-growing, but unruly economy. Through recalling speculative loans and raising interest rates, the central government has moved in recent days to cool the pace of property development.

During the first five months of 1993, real estate investment doubled, according to the official China Daily. More than 240,000 hectares of land were committed to property development, exceeding the government's quota by more than 100,000 hectares.

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The central government issued stern ultimatums to leaders in 20 of 30 provinces, threatening to remove them if excess projects were not halted and the funds redirected to building residential housing, the rundown transportation network, and other infrastructure. Officials dismissed

Banks were directed to sever ties with property development units after senior officials at the Agricultural Bank of China were dismissed for diverting large sums to property speculation.

Beijing, which has dispatched an enforcement team to tour the rebellious provinces, also pledged to impose capital-gains tax and price restrictions on property sales nationwide. Overbuilding has depressed prices and pushed down sales in coastal provinces where buyers are mainly from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

But Chinese analysts say it will be difficult for Zhu Rongji, the government's new economic czar, to impose discipline on the banks, the provincial engines of high growth. Economic decentralization in recent years has loosened Beijing's controls on the regions.

"A big problem is whether Zhu can effectively control all the banks of China. They have become involved deeply in regional projects ... so it will be difficult to pull them back," says a Chinese journalist here. "The governors are now very smart and cunning and have different policies to deal with the central government."

Beijing's success in cooling off land development will have a major impact in the countryside. Local development zones and real estate projects are crowding farmers off the land.

According to the official Farmers Daily, cultivated land dropped by 2 percent last year. A study by the State Statistical Bureau in 27 provinces and municipalities found that 45 percent of the decline was due to mushrooming development and industrial zones. Scarce land has triggered disputes among farmers in Hebei and Guangdong provinces.

Antonio Yue, Beijing general manager for Neptunus Group which markets the piece of America and Homeland schemes in China, insists the crackdown on speculation will not hurt his company's sales.

So far about 100,000 Chinese have bought the American land deeds since the program was launched last year. Indeed, the sales triggered riots in Shanghai and other cities as word spread that the buyer would have the right to inspect the land.

Many thought this was a ticket to a much-prized American visa. The company was forced to include a disclaimer in its promotional materials, says Mr. Yue, who admitted the confusion helped sales.

Neptunus, whose shareholders include a number of government ministries and commissions, has launched "Own a Piece of Homeland of China" in a scheme aimed at wealthy overseas Chinese.

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