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BEIJING-Communist China is trying to build its tourism business with a nostalgic promotion selling postage-stamp-sized plots of land to expatriate Chinese.

After a false start last year, the controversial scheme called "Own a Piece of [the] Homeland" is being reintroduced this month under the auspices of the State Tourism Authority of China.

Neptunus Group, a quasi-governmental Chinese conglomerate owned by banking, military and technology interests, is overseeing the project, considered the country's major tourism advertising initiative for the specially designated China Tourism Year in 1997. The idea is to sell pieces of land to former Chinese, in an effort to increase tourism by luring them back to their homeland to visit the plot.

China hopes to tug at the heartstrings of wealthy overseas Chinese who have been the major investment engine behind the country's soaring economic growth.

According to China's World Tourism Organization, visitors from overseas have jumped an average of 13% annually since 1985. China Daily reported that the State Administration of Tourism said that 41.5 million foreign tourists visited China in 1993, up 8.9% from 1992. Those visitors earned the country $4.7 billion last year.

Antonio Yue, Neptunus general manager and marketing executive, said the group thinks its promotion can lure another 20,000 to 50,000 visitors back to China to see their plots.

To accomplish this, the group expects to spend $5 million to $10 million on print ads in Chinese-language newspapers and billboards in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Canada and the U.S., targeting the estimated 30 million expatriate Chinese living there. Details, timing and media schedule aren't yet worked out. But the effort, to be created by a number of unnamed local ad agencies, will also involve flyers and commercials on the Star TV satellite network, Mr. Yue said.

Creative isn't finalized except for the "Own a piece of homeland China" theme, said Mr. Yue.

He added that preliminary plans are underway to spend another $100 million to buy a cruise ship to sail around Asia promoting China to expatriate Chinese, and a lottery may be held to award trips on the ship. Dance contests and exhibitions may also play a role, but Neptunus isn't yet sure how.

In addition, the company plans to tap into a network of 1,000 overseas travel agents in some of the same countries to promote and market the scheme. They will help choose local ad agencies, a process expected to be completed late this month, and will be paid a commission on the sales.

One difficulty is that Neptunus will have to deal with the unwieldy bureaucracy of the Tourism Authority as well as six other government agencies in approving all aspects of the promotional campaign. "Generally speaking, a company can hire an ad agency without state approval," said Mr. Yue. "But when higher authorities are involved you invite more trouble."

Neptunus is coming off a wildly successful promotion called "Own a Piece of America," in which 100,000 Chinese bought deeds entitling them to a square-inch of land in every one of the 50 U.S. states. The $400 to $1,000 price tag wasn't a deterrent for the Chinese, who assumed-although it wasn't stated in the ad-that owning land in the U.S. gave them a right to inspect the property and therefore a sorely-needed visa.

In 1992, sales in China accounted for the majority of the 250,000 deeds sold around the world by American Acres Inc., a Florida company partnered with Neptunus. For this promotion, 20 small agencies in China were used.

Buying "A Piece of Homeland" will cost about $100 per head but could vary in price from locality to locality. But it technically gives the buyer one inch in 36 special land gardens around China, a process by which Mr. Yue said Neptunus can raise at least $500 million over three years.

The owner's names will be inscribed on one monument and the land remains under state control.

Depite the fact that the project is under quasi-government control, the homeland scheme has already once run afoul of central authorities and nearly got cancelled last year.

Even though China is marching down the path of economic reform, the government remains fractionalized. Reformists led by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping are at odds with conservatives and central planners who are appalled by the freewheeling change and wish to slow it down.

Although private property officially doesn't exist in Communist China, conservatives argued that promotions like Neptunus' wrongly fired up the land mania that swept the country last year. The result, they said, was spiraling inflation and economic uncertainty which left the Chinese clamoring to make a fast buck and to own tangible assets.

The project was singled out for reprimand by Zhu Rongji, a Chinese vice premier and economic czar, and suspended in July two weeks after its start, Mr. Yue said. "The company was made a scapegoat."

Eventually, high-level pressure through Neptunus paid off and the project was reinstated in March.

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