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Why China's Landslide Victims Were Cremated By The State

Article illustrative image Partner logo A proper resting place

A landslide last month in Zhenxiong County in southwestern China killed 46 villagers. Once the bodies were recovered, the local authority -- without any prior agreement from family members -- cremated them. This set off a storm of protest from relatives of the deceased, and widespread criticism from the public. Zhenxiong authorities sparked further outrage when they admitted that the cremations were prompted by a desire to maintain stability in this part of the province of Yunnan.

That one’s family member dies in a disaster is devastating enough. The fact that the local government went ahead with such a decision and deprived the families the chance to send their loved ones off properly is extra salt in the wound. Such a method of “maintaining stability” can only make matters worse.

So why are local officials so thoughtless?

In fact, they had carefully calculated their own interests in taking this decision. They must have been afraid of the families “taking the dead to press the living,” thinking they might react more irrationally when they actually saw the horrible state of their excavated loved ones.

On the contrary, especially from a long term point of view, this kind of behavior hurts the feelings of the families of the deceased, threatens public order and undermines good morals. It makes the already poor credibility of the government even worse.

But once again in China, we see officials who have to deal with a troubling event benefit more than being harmed. This explains why this kind of stability maintenance, drinking poison to quench a thirst, prevails so often. In short, that which is thought to benefit the official order not only jeopardizes social morals but also the credibility of the government itself.

“Taking the dead to press the living” is often the last remedy for the weak against the strong.

Take the custom of my hometown in Central Hunan as an example. When a woman had killed herself due to family disputes, her family clan gathered to prevent her body from being buried -- hoping such a scene could ruin the husband’s family.

This is of course an illegal practice, and not worth promoting. However, when one considers the historical background of the custom, one may understand and feel more sympathy. For starters, in traditional Chinese society, women have a very low status. It’s not rare that women suffer abuse from their mothers-in-law or violence from their husbands. The protection of a woman thus depends, not on the law, but on the forces that her own family can muster. It is very difficult to expect the law to uphold justice when a woman commits suicide because of domestic violence. This is why her family clan creates havoc as a way to punish the husband’s family.

Respect the dead

From the viewpoint of the modern rule of law, this kind of practice is primitive, a type of vigilante justice. But under specific historical circumstances, the approach does have a certain deterrent effect and to a certain extent curbs the ill-treatment of women.

So why is it that the practice of taking the dead to press the living still goes on? The most basic element for a civilized society is to respect the dead. Respecting the deceased is respecting the value of life. It’s hard to imagine how a society in which the dead are not given respect can be said to respect life.

A while ago, various local governments in Henan province implemented by force a policy of flattening tombs. Like others, I believe this is because to those officials the skeletons are just meaningless waste. The fact that that waste has to give way to economic development has broken the bottom line of civilization.

Naturally, funerals and the handling of dead bodies can evolve in accordance with economic and social changes. For instance, cremation can take the place of burial. But the premise of respect for the deceased is not to be denied. This implies respecting the deceased’s will and his or her religion.

All civilized societies respect the dead. If the rules made by the powers-that-be of the living world breach such rules of civility for mere utilitarian purposes then it’s doomed to face revolt.

Far too often, local authorities in China try to settle conflicts in the quickest possible way, fearing neither financial costs nor social taboos, for the sole purpose of maintaining stability. Such a cynical way of ruling must come to an end. 

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