Two weeks ago, Chu Jixue, an investigator with the Propaganda Department at Beijing’s Municipal Communist Party Committee, received a panicked call from a cousin in his rural hometown. The local government, Chu was told, had demanded that the family relocate the ancestral burial plot, and all of its earthly remains, or the plot would be razed.

The government would make no exceptions, offer no chance for appeal, and provide just a small subsidy of 200 yuan (less than $35) for each flattened tomb and free cremation of any extracted remains. The occasion was a practical one: Zhoukou, one of China’s oldest cities, in the heart of Henan, one of China’s poorest provinces, had decided to free up farmland by razing the estimated 3.5 million graves that dot the municipality’s rural landscape.

There is no underestimating what a great affront this threat posed to the Chu family. In contemporary China, as in ancient China, respect for elders is the most deeply felt moral imperative, and veneration of dead ancestors is its purest expression. Families carefully choose grave sites for their feng shui and tend burial spots carefully (especially on “Tomb Sweeping Day,” a public holiday). For some Chinese, such veneration is spiritual; for others, it’s a secular ritual that emphasizes the stabilizing social influence of proper obedience to parents and ancestors.

The Chu family -- like many other families in Zhoukou -- wasn’t willing or able to relocate its ancestors in time. A few days after the government’s tomb flatteners demolished the family’s plot, Chu Jixue published a commentary on the destruction in Southern Metropolitan Weekly, a highly independent newspaper in Guangzhou, that concluded: “I am stunned speechless, and my tears are endless!”

The commentary was subsequently deleted online, a rare occurrence at a rebellious paper that the authorities have long tolerated. (Chu’s high-level association with the Beijing Communist Party’s Propaganda Department is, ironically, widely believed to have played a role in the censorship.) However, screen grabs of the story and its accompanying image of a man swinging a sledgehammer into a brick mausoleum continue to appear on Chinese blogs and microblogs. It’s unclear whether the photo was taken of the Chu family plot or merely selected by a photo editor from the many photos of grave destruction in Zhoukou.

Chu may have been the most prominent individual affected by the grave-razing program, though he is far from the only one. The Zhoukou program began relatively quietly in late spring and only became a national story on Nov. 4, after a short report -- published by Xinhua, the national newswire -- lifted the veil on the program and revealed that the local government was providing transport of exhumed remains to crematories, cremation services and burial of the remains in government-established cemeteries, all free of charge. The offer of free cremation only made matters worse: In rural China, traditional beliefs about the necessity of keeping the body intact mean that cremation enjoys limited (though growing) acceptance.

The issue soon gained national attention, leading 26 academics sign a petition calling for an end to the “brutal, barbaric” program on Nov. 8: “We call on the ruling party and the government to respect the people’s widespread and profound belief in ancestor veneration, respect the national funeral rite customs, and allow the people in accordance with their own wishes, to bury the dead in accordance with their own chosen customs.”

The petition signaled a rare occurrence in China: a public debate over whether practical modern needs should take precedence over traditional values. There’s little question that China needs arable land: Xinhua reports that China lost roughly 20 million acres due to various factors, including urbanization, from 1997 to 2009. Food self-sufficiency is a Chinese government priority, and with that goal -- and the 20 million acre loss in mind -- in 2006, the government set a “red line” of 300 million acres of arable land that it won’t allow China to fall below. That line is by and large the Zhoukou government’s justification for its plans to level 3.5 million graves.

Even many critics of the grave-razing program -- including Chu Jixue in his commentary -- acknowledge that China needs to reform funeral practices (and, inevitably, encourage cremation) to meet growing land demands. What primarily offends these commentators is the brusque method used to clear away the graves in Zhoukou. On Nov. 19, Zhong Yongheng, a native of Zhoukou and a journalist with People’s Daily, the official, self-declared Communist Party mouthpiece, used his account on the Twitter-like Ten Cent microblog, to post his family’s experience with Zhoukou’s program. His family, he notes, no longer lives in Zhoukou but has relocated north to Beijing:

“You should give us notice at least before you damage our ancestral tombs, don’t you think? My family members are all in Beijing and didn’t get any advance notice from anyone. Then we suddenly received news that our ancestral tombs were leveled by an excavator. My parents turned toward the south, wailing.”

By early last week, the destruction of Zhoukou’s graves was a trending topic on China’s microblogs and a popular subject on newspaper editorial pages. Aside from in Henan province, where the papers supported Zhoukou’s local government, most of the commentary was critical, with several editorial pages and bloggers noting similarities between Zhoukou’s grave-razing and the grave-razing practiced during the Cultural Revolution.

“During the Cultural Revolution’s campaigns to extinguish tradition, almost all the graves in China had been leveled off, including the tombs of Confucius and Empress Dowager Cixi, which is a kind of equality,” tweeted a prominent Shenzhen-based lawyer on Nov. 20, on Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog. Then, taking note of reliable rumors that prominent officials would be allowed to maintain their family tombs, he added, “To tell you the truth, Zhoukou is worse than the Cultural Revolution.”

In fact, if there’s one thing that troubles Chinese microbloggers, even more than the defilement of graves, it’s the nagging suspicion that Zhoukou’s local officials are somehow making money off this reprehensible program. After all, the grave-razing is ultimately about reclaiming land, and land remains the top means by which local, and sometimes corrupt, government officials seek to enrich themselves. Thus, many of the commentaries on the grave-razing program contain detailed explanations for how, precisely, a corrupt official could cash in on the reclaimed farmland. In this spirit, but with less detail, Yao Bo, a popular Beijing microblogger, tweeted:

“They dare to level off the common people’s ancestral tombs, this mortuary where the heart of our nation is. The truth is that they’re flattening graves and rehabilitating farm land so that they can free other valuable land for real estate developments.”

So far, there’s no evidence that Zhoukou’s officials -- or its government -- will benefit financially from the grave-clearing program. On the contrary, the Beijing News has reported that some low-level government officials, under pressure to provide good examples for the farmers, have personally dug up their ancestors’ bones.

In one tragic case of a low-level official making an example of his ancestors, however, the digging dislodged a large tombstone that crashed onto two of his living family members, killing both. Sympathy was a rare sight in the several hundred comments left beneath the Beijing News story, many of which suggested that supernatural forces were at play. Meanwhile, other comments took a more vindictive approach, with one of the most repeated comments qualifying as the most direct: “Deserved it.”

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net