Grace Ng – Straits Times Indonesia
Beijing. China’s notorious property bubble is spreading to the grave, as the same speculative frenzy and soaring prices that plagued the housing market now haunt its crowded cemeteries.
When Chinese pay their respects to their departed on Tomb-Sweeping Day tomorrow – also known as the Qing Ming Festival – only a small number of urban residents will visit tiny plots where the ashes of their loved are were interred because they are either lucky or rich enough.
But this number might get even smaller as cemeteries with good feng shui located close to a town can now cost 20,000 yuan (S$3,900) per sq m – three times more than 10 years ago.
Still, many are competing to buy the limited graveyard space in big cities like southern Guangzhou.
As affluence and unfading respect for the age-old tradition of burying one’s dead is driving up the demand for burial land, cemetery owners and agents have found ways to maximize profits.
Their tactics could make the dead turn in their graves as tombs now are partitioned to accommodate more urns. Because of land constraints, only ashes, not bodies, are buried in China.
Maintenance fees for the urns also have been jacked up while some land is being hoarded to drive grave prices even higher.
The business is so lucrative that some housing agents are going into graveyards.
They go renting out houses by day but shift to selling graves – sometimes to the same clients – by night, the Guangzhou Daily reported last week.
“I helped a speculator sell a cemetery space recently for over 300,000 yuan, and earned 10,000 yuan in commission,” one agent named Xiao Zeng told the newspaper.
The profiteering mirrors what is happening in the overheated housing market, prompting a common lament across China: “Nowadays, you can’t afford to live, and you can’t afford to die.”
The current sky-high prices of burial grounds are unacceptable, said 90 percent of 10,000 respondents to an online survey released last week. All respondents said they would be willing to buy such costly graves only for their parents, but not for themselves.
In Beijing and Guangzhou, where the average per sq m price of a burial plot now exceeds that of houses, some Chinese call themselves fen nu (grave slaves). This label is derived from fang nu (housing slaves) – those burdened with huge housing mortgages.
Of course, there are cheaper alternatives, such as keeping the ashes at home or on a crowded crematorium shelf, or buying a spacious “online graveyard” from local websites.
But many older Chinese still prefer a piece of real estate in death, reflecting the national obsession with owning property. “My grandmother has already pre-paid for her tomb space; this arrangement is called ‘living person’s grave’,” said Beijing corporate communications manager Candy Wang, 28.
Wang admits she is worried that the booked space may not be unoccupied. Newspapers recently exposed scams where “living person’s graves” were each sold to multiple people.
This month, netizens have also raised an outcry over a law that stipulates ownership of cemetery space must expire after 20 years.
“When I’m alive, I get only a 70-year lease on my house. When I’m dead, I’m entitled to only 20 years for my final resting place? This is ridiculous!” said one netizen who joined a call for the lease to be extended to 40 years.
All this has prompted calls for the government to protect the interests of property owners – both living and dead.
This year, Beijing’s policies to clamp down on speculation and build new subsidised housing for lower-income Chinese have helped to cool the housing market a little.
Now, some are calling for similar measures to be applied to the cemetery market.
“The government should take the responsibility to provide cemeteries for the public good, increasing investment and lowering the [price] threshold,” said Shandong University’s Professor Wang Zhongwu.
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 2553 5055.