Guangdong officials rob graves to meet monthly cremation targets

By Global Times - Agencies Source:Global Times Published: 2014-12-1 18:58:02

In regions along the border of Guangdong Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, a new business is booming: trafficking stolen corpses from Guangxi and selling them to neighboring towns in Guangdong. Bodies can fetch as much as 5,000 yuan each. The customers are either officials who struggle to meet local cremation targets or local families who want to evade regulations mandating cremation of their deceased family members.

Coffins are discarded on a vacant lot after being smashed in Xindian village, Anqing, in East China's Anhui Province on May 24, in an effort by the local government to achieve 100 percent cremation of local deceased. Photo: CFP

Many villagers in rural China take  extra care to lock up valuables like livestock and preserved food. Other villagers in South China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region protect a different kind of valuable possession: the bodies of their deceased family members.

Some families choose to bury the dead secretly, leaving no graves for people to track. Some build a shed beside the grave, guarding it every night for months.

When the bodies first started disappearing, they thought it might be related to "ghost marriage," a tradition in some rural areas where deceased young unmarried men are buried with corpse brides to guarantee them a love for their afterlife. But when more and more families began reporting the loss of their grandparents' bodies, panic began to set in, and the police were called out.

After an investigation, the truth came out: the corpses were being cremated under assumed names in neighboring towns across the border in Guangdong Province, which has much stricter quotas on burials than Guangxi.

Despite the limitations, many families in Guangdong still choose to bury their relatives. This leaves local authorities in a bind, as a certain percentage of all deceased bodies must be cremated in the areas under their jurisdiction. Some funeral and interment management officials sought a way out: purchasing corpses from thieves and cremating them under the assumed names of deceased citizens from their administrative areas. The corpses went for 1,500 yuan ($244) to 3,000 yuan each.

Some thieves found ways to make the corpse trade even more profitable, selling bodies to families who wanted to avoid cremating their loved ones for around 5,000 yuan each.

Uncovering the body trade

Prosecutors in the city of Beiliu in Guangxi recently brought charges against three people for stealing corpses: two were government officials in Guangdong, the last a farmer surnamed Zhong from Beiliu.

The investigation found that the farmer had stolen more than 20 corpses from several towns around Beiliu and sold them to the government officials during the past two years.

If the charges hold up, the three could be imprisoned for up to three years.

"My grandpa's corpse was stolen," a villager surnamed Gu from Shizhai village, Beiliu, reported to local police station on June 27. His 81-year-old grandpa had died three months prior. His grave remained intact for more than two months while family members took turns guarding it at night. Then they took a night off.

The next day they found fresh soil laying on top of the grave, with footprints and tire tracks covering the ground around it. This was far from an isolated case. Corpse theft was already an epidemic in the village, with several families reopening the coffins of lost loved ones buried more than a year prior only to find them empty.

A tip-off led authorities to Zhong on July 8. He confessed, telling police about his deal with the two officials, who were later detained.

According to investigation, after receiving "orders" from the two customers, Zhong rode his motorcycle around neighboring towns, searching for new graves. Once he confirmed a target, he waited until night, then dug up bodies with a shovel and rope, carrying them off in a woven plastic bag, the Yulin Daily, a newspaper based in Yulin, Guangxi, reported.

Carrying the corpse on his motorcycle across the provincial boundary, he delivered it to a designated place the same night. The government officials then dispatched vehicles to bring the body to an incinerator.

A profitable chain

Corpse theft and sales have long been rampant along the border between Guangdong and Guangxi. As early as 2005, a large corpse sales gang was busted by Guangxi police, who found that more than 100 corpses had been sold to neighboring towns in Guangdong.

In that case, the thieves sold corpses to middlemen in Huazhou, Guangdong at a price of 300 yuan each. The middlemen then sold them to township officials at a price of 3,000 yuan each, who then promptly re-sold the bodies at much higher prices to families who used them to be cremated in place of their deceased loved ones, according to the Being News.

Some thieves even monopolized the burial business by offering customers a package service: send a substitute body to be cremated in an official funeral home, obtain a cremation certificate and find a graveyard to bury the authentic body. The price for the package ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 yuan.

The major driver of the illicit trade is families' insistence on providing a traditional burial for their loved ones, and steady rejection of cremation. However, with farmland at a premium in rural China, graves can sometimes take up space sorely needed for growing crops. As a result, China has explored alternative burial methods, such as burial at sea, so-called "tree-burials" and other forms of green burial, in an attempt to address the conflict between a growing population and shrinking farmland resulting from urbanization.

Regulations require cremations for areas with scarce arable land, dense population and well developed transportation infrastructure. But traditional beliefs requiring bodies to remain intact for the afterlife have led many people, especially those in rural areas, to strongly oppose cremation. Many families still do their utmost to provide deceased family members with a proper burial.

Official statistics show that China's average cremation rate had risen to 49.5 percent in 2012, up from 36 percent in 1997. The Ministry of Civil Affairs announced in April plans to expand cremation zones, and achieve 100 percent cremation rates in all required areas by 2020.

To meet the goal, local regions have tried a number of different tactics to encourage people to cremate their relatives.

The government of Zhoukou, in Central China's Henan Province, launched a city-wide campaign to remove graves in 2012, offering free funeral services, corpse delivery, cremation and urns for ashes. The campaign was met with wide public outrage.

Yunnan Province on Friday issued a new regulation requiring all Party members and officials in the province to set an example by being cremated after death.

Guangxi, whose cremation rate is 24.9 percent, announced a plan in late October to catch up to the national average, and to achieve a 90 percent cremation rate by 2020.

As a pioneer in both political and economic reform, Guangdong has also set a high bar for funeral reform. It declared in March that it had achieved a 90 percent cremation rate for several years running. In Guangdong, cremation is mandatory in designated areas, and cremation rates are an important metric for evaluating the performance of local officials.

Battle to grab corpses

Huang Guozhi, a Party official in Hehua township, home of the Guangdong officials who cooperated with the Guangxi farmer, was suspended after the scandal. Complaining about the pressure he faces, Huang said that his township has a population of 50,000. "The natural mortality is 0.5 percent, which means that every month 23 people die, and [regulations require] that at least half of those be cremated," Huang told Chengdu Economic Daily. "But the families who actually [bring bodies] for cremation are much fewer."

Guangdong's regulations require that any town with a population of more than 50,000 should have cremation rates of at least 50 percent in mountainous regions, 60 percent in hilly areas, 70 percent in the plains, 80 percent in suburbs and 100 percent in urban areas.

Authorities in Huang's city rank officials on cremation rate in each of its 28 townships every month. The lowest performing three townships receive warnings. During the year-end performance evaluation, officials from the three towns with the lowest cremation rates are excluded from opportunities for promotion.

But as neighboring towns in Guangxi have less strict cremation quotas, many locals secretly cross the border to bury their relatives. In months when more than 23 people die in Huang's township, officials still frequently fail to meet their cremation quota.

"[Each month] about 10 families bury their dead in [Guangxi]. Where are we going to find people to cremate?" Huang said.

Township officials have gone to great lengths to prevent villagers from burying bodies on the sly. When they receive word that a villager has passed away, several officials go immediately to the villager's home, staying there until the villager is sent for cremation, according to Chengdu Economic Daily.

Some even keep watch over the main crossings leading towards the mountains around the township. One official said a villager once struck him in the head with a rock late at night, leaving him to bleed.

"While their families are crying, we watch from one side, waiting for them to deliver their lost relative for cremation. Aren't we just asking for a beating?" said one unnamed official from a local township.

"All officials are required to help convince families. Village officials, funeral reform enforcers, township officials, city-level civil affair officials, and public security workers [are all required]," Li Yuanchun, chief of the Nawu township, told the Chengdu Economic Daily.

For some officials, re-taking custody of secretly buried corpses is a full-time job. Huang Guozhi, who has worked as a funeral reform official for more than five years, calls his work a "desperate battle."

After getting information from whistle-blowers, he, taking along with several other colleagues, goes to uncover the grave and take away the corpse. They always work at night, and their jobs can be risky. He recalls one time while he and his team were "retaking" the corpse, he was chased away by a large group of villagers.

These officials are the locals' enemies. "I [usually] don't dare to go out at night. It sounds nice that we were doing a decent thing, but not in eyes of local people. [Uncovering a grave] is a hateful thing."

To avoid conflicts, according to Li Yuanchun, the Nawu township officials no longer go to uncover coffins and re-take corpses by force. Instead they report the offense to local courts, which then order cremations. But if the villagers defy the verdict, "We can do nothing," Li lamented.

Newspaper headline: Stealing the dead

Posted in: In-Depth

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