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Why China is turning graveyards into farmlands




Lately, a policy of ‘tomb-flattening’ in Henan Province has stirred some serious controversy. Millions of tombs have reportedly been destroyed by local authorities in order to convert graveyards into farmland.

Objectively speaking, this policy is the historical evolution of the funeral reform implemented after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, when burials were discouraged and cremation became mandatory, in order to save land.

At the time, even notable scholars such as Zhou Zuoren supported the reform. In his article, The Graveyard Reform, 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.”

After years of reform, China’s funeral customs have changed greatly, turning away from burial toward cremation.

The choice of cremation vs. inhumation is determined by either religious reasons: for instance, cremation in Bali because the islanders are Hindu – or by economic factors: for instance where land is limited, cremation is the norm, such as in Japan (97%) or Great Britain (70%). Whereas in vast and widespread countries cremation rates are low, such as in Canada (38%) and the U.S. (25.5%).

Though China has a vast expanse of land, it has nonetheless limited arable land, combined with a huge population. Faced with this contradiction, funeral reform was unavoidable. However, the recent tomb-flattening policy has taken on a vast scale. The huge resentment it has sparked is worth further consideration.


In traditional Chinese culture, tomb removal has always been considered as viciously degrading. This hasn’t changed much in the contemporary cultural context.

According to Chinese civil law, a grave, whether it is the container of mortal remains or of specific commemorative items with a personal symbolism, belongs to the deceased’s next of kin. It also contains the citizen’s human dignity as stipulated in the Chinese constitution.

Therefore, it obvious that the recent tomb removal policy put in place in Henan Province is a serious affront to the people. In the city of Zhoukou alone, two million graves had been leveled in the past three months. This personally affects tens of millions of people. The local officials are humans too; they should understand people’s feelings. So what kind of pressure prompted them to risk infamy with such outrageous measures?

The pressure is twofold. On one hand it comes from the “red line” implemented by China to insure its arable land never shrinks to less than 1.8 billion mu (120 million hectares) – a policy aimed at protecting China’s food security. Any official challenging this bottom line can be deprived of his post. On the other hand, regional growth and financial revenue relies on the land. The local authorities have to find ways to deal with the process of urbanization and regional industrialization. If there is no land available for sale, the region’s economic development won’t be sustainable, nor will the local officials have any achievements to brag about.


The pressures from both sides are like two nooses. The local governments don’t even have enough energy to care about the living, let alone the dead.

China’s current economic development needs a huge amount of land. In addition to the campaign for the demolition and relocation of households in recent years, the tomb-flattening policy is a demonstration of local governments’ dependence on land in their pursuit of growth and revenue.

Bulk land sales have been going on at all levels of government, in the construction of new towns, economic zones and scientific parks. We are very close to the 1.8 billion mu red line. Under such rigid political constraints, the land expropriation policy has been tightened. Nonetheless, local officials are not short of ideas: they will even try to reclaim barren hills or the sea. They use all kinds of tricks. In the end, farmers give up and are forced to vacate their land to move into apartments. And now we are even vacating cemeteries.

So how is all this going to end?

Using a strict and vast bureaucratic system to promote economic and social development is the usual way in China.

The tomb-flattening policy is a perfect example of this. It has advantages, but even more disadvantages.

Firstly, there are usually serious legal complications. In the case of forced tomb removal, article 20 of the Mortuary Service Administration Act says it is enforceable in the case of improperly buried remains that are not moved upon demand. But according to the Administration Enforcement Law that came to effect last January, the aforementioned act has no authority to enforce the provision. If the enforcement is to be implemented, an administrative decision must be made by the civil affairs department 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.

Secondly, value and cost calculations follow the internal logic of the bureaucracy. Career promotion is the incentive and “political achievements” are the yardstick. They do this without thinking of the interests of the community as a whole. This is why, when scholars such as Yao Zhongqiu, a research fellow at Cathay Institute for Public Affairs, called for the protection of traditional Chinese culture and people’s freedom to worship, in contrast with the two nooses around local officials’ necks, traditions bear no weight.

Besides, it is difficult to calculate the hidden social cost of people’s mental suffering, nor does it affect their “political achievements,” therefore it does not enter into the officials’ consideration. Many local governments know all too well the arcana of the bureaucratic system. If the local official is unable to fulfill his policy, the party chief can be removed from office. Such thunderous means are bound to encourage fraud.

Meanwhile the massive amount of land obtained thanks to the tomb-leveling policy cannot be rehabilitated, and does not affect the officials’ promotions. The whole policy has thus strayed from its original intention.

*Wang Yong is a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, as well as a member of Caixin Media Law Advisory Committee