The opening last year of the world's largest artificial resort island, developed by China Evergrande Group for nearly $13 billion, was the realization of the ambitions of founder Hui Ka Yan, who sketched a design for the project himself.

Now, Evergrande is in default to global bondholders, the former Communist Party secretary of the small Hainan island city where Ocean Flower Island was built is serving a life sentence for bribery and officials in Danzhou city have ordered 39 of the project's towers — roughly 3,900 of the island's 65,000 homes — to be demolished over environmental and construction violations.

The demolition of part of the 800-hectare, flower-shaped project would add to the woes of what was once China's top-selling developer, which is now reeling under more than $300 billion in debt and struggling to revive sales and repay creditors and suppliers.