A massive grave-removal campaign being carried out by the Henan provincial government to restore farmland has seen millions of ancestral graves in the province wrecked since last year, as well as caused local official Zhao Keluo to be removed from his political posting last month.
Zhao, who served as a member of the Henan Provincial Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) for the past five years, believes he was dismissed for publicly denouncing the government's grave demolition campaign that began in Zhoukou, Henan Province, in May and later spread to other cities. A week before he was sacked, Zhao wrote a feigned confession on Weibo, apologizing to Henan's top officials for his "grave misconduct" and saying he was the target of revenge and was ready to die for his ideals.
Since May, two million burial sites have been forcibly cleared and relocated to public cemeteries, which some residents complain don't have sufficient room or quality services.
That month, Zhao posted harsh criticisms of the campaign that had spread to his hometown of Nanyang, saying it flies in the face of China's traditions and culture of filial piety. Moreover, the campaign only applied to the graves of common residents, he noted, while those related to high-level officials went untouched.
The campaign has been condemned by local residents who have been keeping burial traditions alive for generations. Many locals believe that relocating their ancestors' tombs is horribly disrespectful to the deceased. A villager in Zhoukou was killed by a falling gravestone while protesting the campaign.
As public outcry reached a fever pitch, the campaign was forced to a stop in Nanyang in November after the State Council removed a clause that allowed government bodies to destroy tombs by force. However, Zhao said he received tip-offs in December that he would not be re-elected to the Henan committee of the CPPCC.
"Out of fury, I wrote down the confession," Zhao told the Global Times, referring to his December 18 Weibo post in which he apologized to Nanyang officials for openly criticizing the campaign on Weibo instead of offering suggestions through regular CPPCC procedures.
In his sarcastic remarks, he said he "was politically naïve" for thinking a "CPPCC member is entitled to democratic oversight of the government."
"It's my obligation as a political advisor to express my views and give suggestions to the government, but they see me as a trouble maker," Zhao, 38, told the Global Times.
One week after his "confession," Zhao posted again, saying "I'm ready to die for my beliefs and the cause I pursue," alluding to pressure from above. He told the Global Times that he heard rumors that his actions angered top provincial officials and that they would hurt him if he persisted. In January, Zhao was officially removed from the local CPPCC committee.
Loyal to his roots
Despite the turn he took in life, Zhao says he didn't see himself as a potential political player while in school. After graduating from university he opened up an accounting firm in 1998 in downtown Zhengzhou, and he has earned several awards in his field. As he grew in success, he started using his connections to help residents in his hometown to build roads and improve housing.
Over time, he found himself getting more and more involved in his community. He worked as the managing director of the Henan Institute of Certified Public Accountants - a posting from which he was also removed after the grave demolition campaign. He is also a member of the Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang in Henan and he became active in the Youth Federation of Zhengzhou, which recommended him for the Zhengzhou CPPCC when he was only 29 years old.
"After joining the CPPCC I realized that political advisor is more than a fancy title," said Zhao, adding that the new role prompted him to examine the events in rural areas and speak to the interests of his hometown.
During his tenure at the Henan committee, Zhao made proposals on a variety of topics covering food safety, official cars, the legal rights of migrant workers and HIV/AIDS carriers, and how to cope with an aging society.
Born into a farming family in Zhenping county, Nanyang, Zhao said he is very concerned about the livelihood of farmers. Many farmers are moving to the city to seek better employment, leaving seniors at home unattended to, he said. He also pointed to other problems such as the merging of villages, the relocation of villagers to make way for rural development, and forced land expropriation, all of which, he said, are leading to instability.
The grave removal campaign has deteriorated the local government's credibility and enhanced conflicts between farmers and officials, resulting in a deep distrust for the government among the public. The decision to enact such a "simple and violent" campaign to restore farmland was not carried out with the consent of the local CPPCC, Zhao said, which goes against the protocol for such policies.
"I'm pretty stubborn, just like my father, especially when it comes to fighting for our rights. That might have something to do with my job - always being critical," said Zhao, adding that he was raised in a place where villagers are well aware of their rights and how to fight for them when they are threatened.
Peng Yuting, a scholar who is famous for leading rural construction campaigns, was born in the 1930s in Nanyang, and he has been an inspiration for Zhao and many of his fellow villagers, he noted with pride.
While disappointed by the Henan CPPCC's decision to drop him from the political advisory body, Zhao said he would continue to give advice and monitor government activities, though in a less official capacity.
"Weibo has become a battlefield for me to fight injustice," said Zhao. In addition to reading books on history and sociology, Zhao said he's adopted the hobby of being an unofficial political advisor through Weibo, commenting on issues ranging from disputes between villagers and officials, to the Sino-Japanese tension over the Diaoyu Islands.
During the Spring Festival holiday, Zhoukou locals started rebuilding graves that were forcibly removed in the campaign. According to a Qianjiang Evening News report, half of the area's graves have been repaired. Zhao says he has received tip-offs from local residents that officials have threatened more demolitions and fines, prompting him to revive the issue online.
"I don't have to worry about repercussions," he said, "now that I have so many supporters." Though he is seen as an outspoken and respected personality by many, he remains a controversial figure as some question his intentions due to his drastic behavior and high profile.
"Well that'll be left to the public to judge. In order to fight for justice or protect something, you need a little drama to get attention," he said.