Dead asset

Graves for sale

Dead asset

Resting in peace, but at a price

Zombie homeowners in Western parlance are caught in a disorientating nether world, with home loans that they can no longer afford, but not yet evicted by their mortgage providers.

“Dead loans walking” is another macabre description of their unfortunate financial condition.

But talk of the property market and the dead in China has a rather different slant.

As it turns out, the same speculative frenzy that has plagued sections of the housing market for months is now haunting the country’s cemeteries. Death in this context is more associated with rising prices than plunging ones.

As Chinese families got ready on Tuesday for the annual Qing Ming, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, (traditionally for tending the graves of deceased relatives), the media reported that prices for tomb plots are rising faster than for neighbouring houses. The fear among the tomb-sweepers: that if prices continue to advance, they themselves may no longer be able to afford a proper burial.

Southern Metropolis News was typical in reporting that burial plots in Guangzhou now rival the most expensive property in the city in square metre terms. Small plots at Rmb90,000 per square metre for a 20-year lease are almost seven times the price of similar housing space in the city centre. Tomb prices in some parts of Beijing have now reached Rmb218,000 per square metre, or about nine times the price of a new apartment.

In Changchun, the provincial capital of Jilin, prices have also jumped nearly 20% in the past year, leading to complaints from residents that they can no longer afford to die.

City officials brushed off the black humour, suggesting a scattering of ashes at sea as an alternative departure.

But longstanding tradition prevents most families from the space-saving solution. Former leaders Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping may have asked to have their ashes scattered at sea, but terrestrial disposal has long been considered the most respectful way to handle the dead.

Space constraints continue to drive up prices, as late last year the Financial Times was reporting that Shanghai’s municipal authorities were having to bury bodies seven or eight deep.

Plots are rented for an initial maximum of 20 years, and after that the contract can either be renewed or remains are exhumed and the space given up to a grateful newcomer.

Certainly, there seems to be little room for sentiment. The China Daily reported this week on local anger in southwest Sichuan when one cemetery published a notice in a local newspaper naming more than 100 people buried on its grounds whose management fees were overdue.

Ministry of Civil Affairs data shows that about 9.35 million people died in China in 2008, and the country’s aging population has 167 million people over the age of 60. Further driving up prices is the common belief that one will have more years to live once a burial site is secured.

That said, find an exploitable shortage and soon the speculators will gather. And it seems graveyards are no different: tomb plots are changing hands long before their owners have need of physical ownership.

In fact, demand for the best plots is so insistent that some housing agents are willing to pull an extra shift for graveyard duty (endearing their profession all the more to the rest of the population).

Some realtors have been showing houses by day and then moving on to selling graves – sometimes to the same clients – after hours, the Guangzhou Daily reported.

Call it the ultimate in one-stop shopping. “We (real estate agents) are not allowed to sell tomb plots, so we are all doing it secretly,” an agent named Xiao Zeng told Guangzhou Daily. “I helped a speculator sell a cemetery space recently for over Rmb300,000, and earned Rmb10,000 commission.”

Even Taobao, the country’s largest consumer website, has jumped on the trend. Type in ‘burial plot’ to its search function and you will find over 3,000 listings nationwide. To boost their asking prices, many sellers market their plots as being feng shui friendly (sample ad: “high on a hill, facing water on three sides”).

This all leads to familiar calls for a government clampdown on speculation, similar to its efforts against property prices in general. Professor He Bing, from the China University of Political Science and Law, said the authorities should boost the supply of available plots and enforce restrictions to discourage speculators from exploiting demand.

Dead easy in principle, perhaps. But not always as easy in real life?

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