Henan city refuses to stop clearance of graves to make farmland

Zhoukou officials say clearance of families' tombs to establish farmland will continue even though State Council takes stance against the practice

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2012, 3:13am

A city in central Henan province says it will push ahead with grave demolitions after the levelling of millions of tombs sparked outrage.

Two million tombs in Zhoukou, one of the oldest cities on the mainland, have been removed over the past few months under a new provincial government policy to make more land available for agriculture.

A spokesman from the city's civil affairs bureau, which is in charge of the grave demolitions, said the city government had no intention of halting the campaign, even though the State Council last Friday struck out a clause from regulations that allowed for forced demolition of grave sites.

"We are still clearing graves for farmland and we will definitely continue doing that," he said. The spokesman said the State Council announcement only meant the civil affairs bureau had no right to carry out compulsory demolitions. "The courts and the police bureau will instead take responsibility for execution," he said.

The revised version of the funeral and interment control regulation removed a sentence in Article 20 that allowed for forced demolitions.

The amendment, which will come into effect next year, came after an online petition campaign by a group of scholars and thousands of people from Henan.

State-run Xinhua released a report earlier this month praising the demolition project. A Henan reporter said mainland media ignored the petition, launched days before the Communist Party's 18th national congress.

Jia Guoyong, a playwright originally from Zhoukou, said the new regulation would not stop the demolitions. He said he was shocked to the core when he returned to his hometown at the end of last month.

"I felt I lost my soul," he said, describing an atmosphere like "the end of the world", with people crying as tractors demolished graves and buckets of bones spilled everywhere.

An official document released at the start of this year said the province would make cremation compulsory within three years.

Jia's family graves were affected by the project, with local officials telling his family that if they did not remove the bones voluntarily, tractors hired by the government would do the job. Jia said it amounted to a threat to destroy his ancestors' bones.

Zhang Qianfan, a law professor at Peking University who joined the online petition, said that rather than engage in discussion with residents who opposed the project, the officials had simply labelled opponents as "superstitious".

"The government should introduce humanistic regulations to guide residents, instead of simply destroying their beliefs," Zhang said.

The Xinhua report said village officials had demolished their family tombs and relocated remains to public graveyards to set an example to villagers who held traditional beliefs.

A story on the website of the People's Daily last month said the local government would give a family that cleared a grave about 1,000 yuan (HK$1,230), but five families from different villages in Zhoukou told the South China Morning Post they had not received any money.

"And there's no such thing as 'public graveyards', those are open fields," said a villager from Zhoukou's Taikang county.

Zhang said the lack of clarity from the State Council gave local officials a lot of wiggle room: "They can still do whatever they want based on their interests if the regulation is vague."

Jia said after removing his parents' bones from their graves and putting them in a small box at home, he no longer had anywhere to go when he felt upset. Previously he used to go to the graves to talk to his parents.

"My daughter once asked me if her grandparents could still rest in peace," Jia said. "I don't know how to answer that. I have already lost my soul."