The dead live on in China.

Source: STR/AFP/Getty Images

In China, Even Grave Robbers Have to Meet Quotas

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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For decades, the Chinese government has ruled via quotas and benchmarks while ignoring the social and environmental costs incurred in meeting them. The most obvious example is the relentless pursuit of a high gross domestic product numbers, no matter the air pollution that chokes the nation's cities. But there are endless others, including -- as of last week -- that “funeral reform” officials in south China’s Guangdong province will be expected to meet quotas on the number of dead people who are cremated.

The notion seems absurd. But what made it particularly newsworthy was the revelation that local officials in the province hired a gravedigger to steal corpses from cemeteries for as much as $490 per body, on delivery, ensuring that quotas could be met (and, in all likelihood, their annual performance assessments enhanced). For Chinese citizens accustomed to government by benchmark, it represents an extreme example of what they face daily: a political system that’s accountable only to itself.

Considered coldly , the point of cremation quotas is neither new nor totally objectionable. Since the 1940s, officials have tried to persuade rural Chinese to opt for cremation over burial so as to preserve arable farmland. But it’s become particularly urgent in recent years because of relentless urbanization. In yet another bureaucratic metric, China’s central government declared in 2006 that arable land could not fall below a “red line” of 300 million acres.

For the many local governments in China that depend on land sales as their primary revenue source, this poses a problem: Where do you get more farmland to replace the stuff you’ve built shopping malls on? And, equally important, how do you free up more land? For many, the answer is to order the disinterment of the millions of graves dug into farm fields across China, while ordering and enforcing strict moratoriums on new ones. In 2012, a government in rural Henan Province ordered the exhumation of 3.5 million graves, while offering free cremations of the remains. The decree did not go out gently, either: Families were expected to do the disinterring themselves, or face the excavators.

Brute force policies like this will cause strong reactions anywhere. But in they are particular affronts in ancestor-worshiping China, where respect for elders and the dead, and the need to keep the body intact after death, remain cultural imperatives.

Predictably, the Henan disinterment program inspired widespread condemnation, including from prominent academics and the state-run press. Similarly, last year in Anhui Province, several elderly people committed suicide  just days before a government order banning burial went into effect. Their goal, viewed sympathetically by many traditionally-minded Chinese, was to avoid the crematorium. More commonly, Chinese families simply hide burials from local governments.

According to state media, the new cremation quota was calculated based on the population in an official's jurisdiction, and how many people were expected to die in a given period. But with families in Guangdong hiding bodies because of anti-burial rules, it's become hard to tell how many people are actually dying. The two officials who got caught, of course, had other options than grave robbery. They might have followed Singapore’s model for funeral reform, and paid for dignified disinterment and cremation ceremonies, while educating a skeptical public about why such a program meets public needs.

But that approach takes time, money, patience and -- above all -- respect for the people you serve. That last quality can be severely lacking in Chinese government when it comes time to fulfill quotas that might promote a career.

The two funeral officials will not be the last to choose criminality over humaneness; not so long as China continues to promote the Communist Party’s interests over the rule of law. Future examples may not be as macabre but, as in the case of air pollution, they may be far more deadly. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net