The civil affairs department in Zhou-kou, Henan Province, now says its controversial grave removal campaign will continue and the recovered lands will be returned to farming.
Hu Chaoyang, an official with the city's civil affairs department, denied previous reports that the city has stopped razing tombs and insisted that the move benefits the city's 12 million residents by returning the land to farming, according to the Legal Daily.
However, the newly amended Regulation on Funeral Management released on the central government's website on November 16 removes an article that gave local governments power to force residents to cremate deceased family members.
Previous media reports quoted a press official of the city as saying that the city government had stopped the campaign after the amended regulation was released.
The local government's move stirred debate online with more than 152,873 posts discussing the issue on Sina microblog service, as of 2 pm Thursday.
While destroying the graves of ancestors is considered unacceptable, many locals are too afraid to stand up to the authorities, they commented.
Analysts see the tomb-removal campaign as evidence that local governments in Henan are ignoring public concerns.
Web users also questioned the local government's intention.
Zheng Fengtian, a professor with the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at the Renmin University of China, told the Global Times that returning graveyards to farmland is just an excuse and that the local government's true intent is to sell the land.
Returning graveyards to farmland in Zhoukou started in June this year but the plan has been under consideration by local authorities since October 2011. About 3.4 million of tombs have been wrecked this year.
"We will start to give a bonus to those who have done impressive jobs removing tombs and those who build public cemeteries. We will not give up the plan just because there were some online debates," Hu told the Legal Daily.
"The campaign is just an excuse to take over the land. The money they use to compensate locals and give bonuses to officials all come from the sale of land," Zheng said.
In Shangshui county, a pilot region for Zhoukou's three-year tomb-removal plan, officials who fail to complete their assignment can face dismissal, the Legal Daily reported.
"Conflicts over land are the most severe problem in rural China. The price of farmland will increase 100 fold after it is sold, so how to acquire the land is what local officials are working really hard on because lands mean money, GDP growth and promotion," said Zheng, who worries other local governments in Henan Province will copy Zhoukou's plan.
Yu Lingyun, an administrative law professor at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times that the government cannot force locals to move their tombs if the tombs are not newly built.
"Similar cases occurred when the country campaigned for cremation. But local governments now should learn from the past and listen to the public," Yu said.