When Tradition is Flattened by Policy

A “tomb-flattening policy” in Henan province has sparked intense controversy, with millions of tombs reportedly destroyed by local authorities in a quest to turn graveyards into farmland.

The policy can be seen as a historical extension of land-saving reforms implemented after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which discouraged burials and made cremations mandatory.

At the time, even notable scholars such as Zhou Zuoren supported the reform. In an article published in 1951, Zhou wrote: “The problem now is that land is important for the sake of production. We have to see how the land can be given back to the living, so that the dead are not harming others without benefiting themselves.”

Indeed, funeral customs have changed greatly in recent decades, as more Chinese have chosen cremation over burial for dead loved ones.

Such choices may be made for either religious reasons (for instance, Hindus choose cremation) or economic factors, as in the case of China, where the amount of arable land is limited. Cremation is the norm in Japan, where the cremation rate is 97 percent, and in Britain (70 percent). But the rates are low in larger countries such as in Canada (38 percent) and the United States (25 percent).

China has a vast amount of land, but it has limited amount of arable land and a huge population. Thus, the government’s decision to reform funeral customs was unavoidable.

However, Henan’s “tomb-flattening policy” went too far, stirring wide-scale resentment.

In traditional Chinese culture, covering over or digging up a tomb is considered viciously degrading. Not much has changed in the context of contemporary culture.

A grave under civil law, whether it contains remains or personally symbolic commemorative items, belongs to the deceased’s next of kin. It’s also a receptacle for human dignity, according to the Chinese constitution. Therefore, it is obvious the policy put in place in Henan has been a serious affront.

In the city of Zhoukou alone, about 2 million graves were leveled over the past three months, personally affecting tens of millions of people. Local officials are human, too, so they should understand people's feelings.

So what kind of pressure and what kind of a bureaucratic system prompted these officials to risk infamy by approving such outrageous measures?

The pressure is two-fold. On the one hand, it comes from China’s “red line” policy aimed at ensuring that the nation’s total amount of arable land never goes below 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares). The idea is to protect the nation’s food security, and any official who challenges this bottom-line policy can lose his post.

On the other hand, land use is a driver for regional growth and local government revenues. Local authorities have to find ways to deal with the process of urbanization and regional industrialization. If there is no land available to sell, economic development won't be sustainable, and local officials won’t have any achievements to brag about.

Feeding Development

A huge amount of land has been needed to spur China's economic development. Local governments have proven their dependence on land in recent years through campaigns to demolish homes and relocate households. Tomb-flattening is a further demonstration of land dependence in pursuit of growth and revenue.

Governments at all levels in recent years have been selling land in bulk for building new residential communities, economic zones, and research parks. As a result, we are very close to the 1.8 billion mu red line.

Due to political constraints, China’s land expropriation policies have been tightened, limiting the amount of property available for development. Nonetheless, local officials are not short of ideas for making land. Some are reclaiming barren hills or filling in the sea. Farmers have been forced off land and into apartments. And now we are destroying cemeteries.

So where is this leading?

It’s typical in China to use the strict and vast bureaucratic system to promote economic and social development. But the system has disadvantages. Tomb-flattening is a perfect example of the harm inflicted.

Henan’s policy has serious legal consequences. In the case of forced tomb removal, article 20 of the Mortuary Service Administration Act says improperly buried remains can be forcibly removed. But according to the Administration Enforcement Law that took effect in January, the act contains no enforcement provision. So a gravesite move must be approved by civil affairs officials through an administrative decision and approved by a court.

Had Henan authorities followed this procedure, they could not have converted so many graveyards so quickly, not even in ten years.

Second, value and cost calculations follow the internal logic of the bureaucracy. Career promotion is an incentive and “political achievement” a yardstick. Officials follow this without thinking about the overall interests of a community.

This is why even when scholars such as Yao Zhongqiu, a research fellow at the 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 felt by officials.

It is hard to calculate the hidden social cost of mental anguish. It does not affect “political achievements,” so it’s not even considered.

Many local governments know all too well how a bureaucratic system works. If a local official fails to fulfill policy goals, the local party chief can be removed. So a massive amount of land is opened up for agriculture through a policy of tomb-leveling that officials dare not question.