Chinese officials in Henan province are returning fire in a war of words that for months has engulfed them in public criticism over a controversial grave-clearing campaign.
An editorial published on Thursday in the state-run Henan Daily  newspaper defended the “grave-flattening” campaign, justifying it as an “important part of [Henan’s] burials and interment reform”. It admonished microbloggers for spreading “inappropriate remarks” about the government across social media and urged them to be rational.
“Hundreds have released inappropriate remarks online, and even questioned the multi-party co-operation system under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. This is not to be taken as an example. The digital world is not a world outside the law,” the editorial said.
The editorial said the grave-clearing campaign was a vital “social goal” aimed at increasing Henan’s stock of arable land and to strengthening food security and agricultural industry. It claimed the campaign had the support from “the masses” and would serve multiple purposes and benefit the country.
More than two million graves and tombs across Henan were demolished this year as part of a “flatten graves to return farmland” campaign. It was eventually shelved in November after sparking outrage from the Chinese public.
The Henan Daily editorial also criticised a recently dropped member of Henan’s People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) for openly questioning the campaign on microblogging service Sina Weibo earlier this year.
Zhao Keluo, 38, had his candidacy for the provincial Standing Committee revoked this month. He published a sarcastic “letter of repentance ” on his weibo account  apologising for his criticism of the campaign; his letter quickly went viral on Chinese social media.
"I am so naive about politics, I should have been removed far earlier," Zhao wrote, an apparent jab at the CPPCC’s role, which in theory, is supposed to check the power of the party and government.
Scores of netizens, offended by the editorial’s criticism of social media, have since rallied around Zhao and blasted the government for its curbs on free speech.
“So criticism isn’t even allowed in the so-called participation in the deliberation and administration of state affairs at the government level?” wrote one weibo user.
Chen Yuming , a Xinhua journalist, also expressed support for Zhao: “China is a country ruled by law, and the government must accept supervision and tolerate criticism…even ordinary citizens should have freedom of speech.”
Facing repeated threats and pressure from the government, Zhao on Tuesday posted on his weibo account what he called a "suicide note", possibly as insurance if something happened to him.
“I, Zhao Keluo, for the thousands of Nanyang peoples’ ancestors, for Henan’s 100 million peoples’ ancestors, offended the leaders of the CPC Henan Provincial Committee. I’ve already been removed from the CPPCC and they will continue to retaliate against me...there’s nothing more I can do now, if it’s coming, then I am prepared!”
Asked for comment by the South China Morning Post earlier this month, Zhao said everything he had to say was in the repentance letter and refused to make further comment.