Henan Officials Commit a Grave Error

China saw 41 self-immolation protests against forced evictions between 2009 and 2011. One might expect that death would at least be the end of the problem; but not in Zhukou city in Henan province, where local authorities are razing millions of graves to make way for farmland. Scholars, local residents and sympathisers nationwide all oppose the campaign, but despite reports last month that it had been abandoned, an official insisted that “we will not give up the plan just because there were some online debates.” At Bloomberg’s World View, Adam Minter examined the public outcry against this “brutal, barbaric” practice.

Even many critics of the grave-razing program […] acknowledge that China needs to reform funeral practices (and, inevitably, encourage cremation) to meet growing land demands. What primarily offends these commentators is the brusque method used to clear away the graves in Zhoukou. On Nov. 19, Zhong Yongheng, a native of Zhoukou and a journalist with People’s Daily, the official, self-declared Communist Party mouthpiece, used his account on the Twitter-like Ten Cent microblog, to post his family’s experience with Zhoukou’s program. His family, he notes, no longer lives in Zhoukou but has relocated north to Beijing:

“You should give us notice at least before you damage our ancestral tombs, don’t you think? My family members are all in Beijing and didn’t get any advance notice from anyone. Then we suddenly received news that our ancestral tombs were leveled by an excavator. My parents turned toward the south, wailing.”

[…] So far, there’s no evidence that Zhoukou’s officials — or its government — will benefit financially from the grave- clearing program. On the contrary, the Beijing News has reported that some low-level government officials, under pressure to provide good examples for the farmers, have personally dug up their ancestors’ bones.

In one tragic case of a low-level official making an example of his ancestors, however, the digging dislodged a large tombstone that crashed onto two of his living family members, killing both. Sympathy was a rare sight in the several hundred comments left beneath the Beijing News story, many of which suggested that supernatural forces were at play. Meanwhile, other comments took a more vindictive approach, with one of the most repeated comments qualifying as the most direct: “Deserved it.”

At Global Times, Yu Jincui wrote that the “aggressive and showy tomb excavation campaign stinks to high heaven“, explained the depth of the taboo surrounding burial sites, and condemned the authorities’ heavy-handed attempt to overrule locals’ concerns.

In Chinese tradition, the removal of ancestral graves is the biggest insult one can endure, and those who excavate tombs are said to be subject to the most vicious curse.

[…] Considering the cultural and historical background of tombs and the importance they have for people, villagers’ resistance to their removal is not only understandable, but also predictable. In order for this plan to work, the government needs to both cooperate with and respect local residents.

[…] Those who excavate others’ tombs are traditionally considered to be cursed. The reputation of some historical figures is forever tainted by their merciless excavation of others’ tombs, such as Sun Dianying, a warlord in the 1920s who desecrated and looted the Eastern Royal Tombs of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In light of strong public opposition, tomb removal in many cities has been halted, including in Zhoukou.

I am afraid the efforts of these local officials are doomed to go down in history as a bad example in the tale of China’s funeral reform. China’s local governments should understand that using force to promote reform is no longer effective today. Leaders in Henan and other provinces should take time to reflect on this.

Caixin’s Wang Yong acknowledged the economic and political pressures on local officials and the need for reform of burial practices. But, he argued, the “tomb-flattening campaign” epitomised the “typical” Chinese approach of using a huge and inflexible bureaucracy to shunt economic development forward at all costs.

First, there are usually serious legal complications. In the case of forced tomb removal, article 20 of the Mortuary Service Administration Act says that improperly buried remains can be forcibly removed. But according to the Administration Enforcement Law that came to effect last January, the act has no authority to enforce the provision. If enforcement is to be implemented, an administrative decision must be made by the civil affairs officials and executed by a court.

Had the Henan authorities followed this procedure, even if they had enforced their “tomb-flattening policy” for 10 years, they wouldn’t have achieved much. Sadly, the political movement is often in total contradiction with the rule of law in China.

Second, value and cost calculations follow the internal logic of bureaucracy. Career promotion is the incentive and “political achievements” are the yardstick. Officials follow this without thinking of the interests of the community as a whole.

This is why even when scholars such as Yao Zhongqiu, a research fellow at Cathay Institute for Public Affairs, call for the protection of traditional Chinese culture and people’s freedom to worship, tradition still bears no weight in the face of the pressure placed on officials.

It is difficult to calculate the hidden social cost of people’s mental suffering. It does not affect officials’ “political achievements,” therefore it does not enter into their consideration.