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Mass protests in China over reforms to funeral practices

Villagers in Suizhou of Hubei province oppose govt rule asking them to bury their dead in public cemeteries after paying fees
A Chinese woman burns incense to pay respect to her ancestors ahead of the tomb sweeping festival in this undated image.

A Chinese woman burns incense to pay respect to her ancestors ahead of the tomb sweeping festival in this undated image. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 13, 2024 10:08 AM GMT
Updated: May 13, 2024 10:34 AM GMT

Thousands of villagers in Hubei province of central China have resorted to mass street protests including the blockade of a national highway demanding repeal of recent reforms in traditional funeral practices, says a report.

The protests have rocked Suizhou, a prefecture-level city, since the first week of May as rural villagers vented their anger against new funeral and cemetery rules enacted by the authorities, Bitter Winter magazine reported on May 10.

The authorities deployed scores of police to disperse the protesters, forcing them to return home with promises of paying heed to their grievances.

This is the second mass protest opposing an official policy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after street protests over the strict “Zero Covid” policy in the country.

The authorities in several parts of China have recently introduced mandatory cremation policy, in most cases with little or no respect for ancestral traditions, the report said, adding that protests in Suizhou highlighted the grievances of local communities.

Suizhou’s regulations also apply to rural and mountainous areas where the dead are traditionally buried in village cemeteries. Old families have their ancestral halls where the dead are buried, and ancestor worship is practiced.

Some are very simple or consist of a few graves on an isolated hill. Locations are chosen according to Feng Shui, an ancient Chinese art of arranging buildings, objects, and space in an environment to achieve harmony and balance, according to National Geographic Society.

The authorities in Suizhou enacted the new regulations on March 20 which requires all residents in the prefecture to bury their dead relatives in the new “public welfare cemeteries” constructed in recent years.

The authorities also announced the aim of the “three 100 percent”: 100 percent of uniform funerals, 100 percent of cremations, and 100 percent of burial of the ashes in the public welfare cemeteries.

The new cemeteries in the prefecture have been built at a cost of more than US$37 million, reports say.

The residents have been asked to buy a place for their ashes for 3,000 yuan ($416) for each member of their family (or more, in certain cemeteries).

In fact, they do not “buy” but “rent” for twenty years, after which it is unclear whether the ashes will be dispersed, or families will be asked to pay an extra fee.

Bitter Winter reported that the cost burden particularly angered poor rural villagers who have yet to recover from dire economic impacts of Covid-19 pandemic.

The regulation provisioning a jail penalty for those who refuse to pay the fee for a burial place reportedly frustrated many villagers.

Besides, many are strongly opposing the new rules saying it threatens their traditional funeral practices and fear their ancestral graveyards will disappear if they are forced to follow the new policy.

Critics also say the policy is part of CCP’s attacks against ancestor worship, which it repeatedly denounced as a “feudal superstition.”

“We can accept cremation but even if they are cremated, the ashes of our deceased relatives should be placed in the ancestral graves. With the new cemetery system, where will our children and grandchildren go to worship their ancestors?” a villager was quoted as saying by Bitter Winter.

Others said it is all a massive scam, where money will be pocketed in the end by some corrupt officials.

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