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June 3, 2011

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Tale of one man's island

ONE of the first individuals to rent an island, long before the recent official rollout for development, is Zhu Renmin, a famous landscape artist in Shanghai, who spent 100,000 yuan (now US$15,437) in 1996 to rent a small uninhabited island in Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province. He has a 40-year lease on his island in the Lianhua (lotus) Sea.

And he's not a bit pleased about new plans for developing 176 islands, saying developers are running out land on the Chinese mainland and now are reaching out to exploit islands. Quite a few have already been exploited.

He shrugs off promises of environmental protection. Zhu has been involved in environmental protection around China for decades and says, "I can tell you clearly that development is the same thing as destruction."

But for now Zhou's scenic island is safe, a haven for those seeking art, Buddhist culture and peace. He also provides studios and food for struggling young artists on his island of pine trees, flowering shrubs and rare orchids. Zhu's patch of paradise lies in the Zhoushan archipelago. He named it Lotus Island because from a distance it has the shape of a sleeping Buddha and Buddha always sits on an open lotus.

"100,000 yuan was a lot of money at that time. I could buy an entire street including all its shops for that money 15 years ago," he tells Shanghai Daily.

Zhou's island is near the famous Buddhist pilgrimage site of Putuo Island. He built an art plaza and an exhibition hall; He carved statues of arhats and Buddhas to resonate with the Buddhist ambience.

In 1992, Zhu first visited the island to seek inspiration for his art. But to his surprise, he found fishermen burning pittosporum shrubs with beautiful flowers for firewood. He noted that some rare orchids were destroyed as fishermen made way for their ponds and equipment.

At the same time, negotiations were underway for a real estate development on the island.

"I had not other way to stop them but to buy (rent) the island myself. It was the only way to save it."

In the 1990s there were no standard prices or regulations on development of deserted islands.

"The local government said 100,000 yuan. And I said okay, a deal for 100,000 yuan," Zhu recalls.

After four years of preparation, he officially became lord of his island. He developed so many designs that documents and blueprints had to be transported in two trucks.

Lotus Island is open to the public, without admission fee. "Everyone is welcome to my small island to enjoy the art there," he says. "I'm not a businessman. I developed it for environmental protection, not for making money."

He says he spent around 30 million yuan to develop it, including infrastructure, landscaping, buildings and facilities.

Though the island is only 2 kilometers from the Putuo Island pilgrimage site and no more than 800 meters from the major fishing port of Shenjiamen, development was extremely difficult. Zhu had to provide electricity and fresh water, laying a pipe from Zhoushan. He says he can't remember how many times he struggled in rough seas in his small boat going back and forth between the island and the city. "I almost lost my life at sea," he says.

At the entrance to the island stands a stone bearing the inscription "Forever Free of Charge."

"Each island is nature's masterpiece that has taken millions of years to form. It's the common wealth of the human race," says Zhu.

The island receives thousands of visitors every year.

"I never think of making money and in fact I have not earned one cent. It depends on what you want," he says. "If you want to make money, this would be a total loss. But for me, the island realizes my dream to create a peaceful setting for art, nature and the human spirit."

Zhu is discouraged by the first official offering of lands for development.

"The country has sold out its onshore lands. Now it turns to islands. What's next if the islands are exploited and there are no more islands to develop? Is there anything that can be saved for our next generation?

"It is obvious that the desire to make money is the reason behind the development. Motivated by money, no one cares about environmental protection. And trust me, bad and dirty things could happen in the island development venture."


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