Chinese buy U.S. in inches Brooklyn Bridge next? DATELINE: BEIJING

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

December 31, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Zhang Jie has never set foot in America, but he owns about 65 square inches of land in each of the 50 American states. It is land he would rather not own.

How the 28-year-old entrepreneur got stuck with his tiny, but diverse, holdings of U.S. land is a tale of how one apparently successful scheme spawned a second gambit that went awry.

Mr. Zhang's venture into U.S. real estate began at a small office in a fancy Beijing hotel, where for the past few months Chinese representatives for a U.S. company have been peddling parcels of U.S. land to Chinese buyers.

Each package supposedly consists of 50 square inches of land, 1 square inch in every state. Each package sells for approximately $685, or about twice China's average yearly per capita income.

According to documents in the Beijing sales office, the U.S. land is owned by a California company, American Acres Inc., which claims to have bought 1 acre in every state and then to have subdivided each acre on paper into more than 6 million 1-square-inch parcels.

"Deeds" that come with each purchase are lacquered onto impressive wooden plaques ready for wall mounting. Fine print says that they are "issued for novelty purposes not as an investment." It also says that the land cannot be improved, developed or occupied by deed-holders.

That apparently hasn't stopped thousands of Chinese from jumping at this expensive chance to own some tiny pieces of America.

Throughout China, 30,000 parcels already have been sold, says Liu Li of the China Molun Group, one of two Chinese firms representing American Acres and its overseas agents here.

Sales offices in the Chinese cities of Shenzhen, Canton, Shanghai and Tianjin have sold out their allotments, and Beijing has peddled more than 3,000 parcels, she says.

Many Chinese purchasers realize that the parcels have no practical use. Some have worried whether the sales are legal in China, even though the two Chinese companies running the Beijing office are owned by the state Ministry of Public Security.

But such is the allure of America here that the land deeds are being given as gifts to newlyweds and grandchildren, hoarded by collectors and even bought by some in the desperate hope that the land might help in obtaining a much-sought U.S. visa.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman says land ownership has absolutely no effect on visa applications. A notice at American Acres' Beijing office comes close to admitting as much: "We make no promises that the purchase of this land will help in obtaining a U.S. visa."

But sales representatives do little to dissuade prospective buyers from believing that purchases just might give them an edge.

"If you are filling out an application for a school in America or if you are trying to get a visa, and you say I own a piece of America, then that has to help, right?" Ms. Liu says. "Of course, the U.S. Embassy won't make any public comment on it. If they fTC did, everyone would rush down here to buy."

Mr. Zhang, the young entrepreneur, wants more than anything else to believe that that is really the case -- not because he wants to go to America, but because he wants to unload his land without losing his shirt.

Earlier this year, Mr. Zhang bought 100 land packages from American Acres for about $65,000. He and several friends had scraped together this money -- a phenomenal sum for China -- to set up a foreign trade and travel agency.

But first they figured they could turn a quick profit by plowing their money into American Acres' parcels, waiting for the land to sell out and then reselling their holdings at higher prices.

Sales at American Acres' Beijing office have been much slower than expected, however. The price of the land hasn't risen. And Mr. Zhang has only been able to sell about 35 of his parcels.

Like real estate salesmen everywhere, Mr. Zhang knows how to put a positive face on his predicament: "This is a once in a lifetime chance; this is a piece of America. Of course it will increase in price."

But American Acres' representatives here aren't worried about that. They're already looking toward their next venture, Ms. Liu says: buying land in China to peddle in minuscule parcels to overseas Chinese under the banner, "Own a Piece of Your Native Land."

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