Palace Museum is accused of renting hall to super rich

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 May, 2011, 12:00am


Beijing's Forbidden City is embroiled in another scandal days after artefacts were stolen from the former imperial palace.

The Palace Museum, which manages the five-century-old site, has been accused of renting out one of its best imperial-era halls and turning it into a private, members-only club for billionaires from around the world.

The allegation, which state television anchorman Rui Chenggang posted on a popular micro-blogging site on Wednesday, quickly attracted public attention and news coverage yesterday.

Although museum spokesman Feng Naien issued a denial yesterday, few were convinced. Hundreds of people voiced their outrage in chat rooms and on the Sina Weibo microblog service amid debate over the management on one of the mainland's most important world heritage sites.

Photos purportedly of a business banquet involving Ch?teau Margaux, a wine estate from Bordeaux, France, and website links to ads promoting the hall as an exclusive venue for events were also posted.

The new controversy has dealt another blow to the palace management, already widely blamed for security loopholes in Sunday's burglary - the museum's first in two decades.

Rui said Jianfu Hall, which was burned down in 1924 and rebuilt in 2005, had been rented out by the museum managers to an exclusive club to make money, with 500 membership cards on sale to the world's richest people. 'A foreign tourist guide told me proudly that he has arranged a family dinner at the palace for an American billionaire. It is not a big deal if we lose several artefacts, but I am afraid we are losing something more valuable,' he wrote.

He did not provide further proof supporting his allegation.

In a statement posted on Sina Weibo yesterday, the museum said the hall has been reserved for diplomatic and cultural exchange events since the restoration.

A senior cultural heritage official close to the museum said the allegation was inaccurate because the hall had mostly been used by the government and the museum to host foreign dignitaries and state guests. 'I don't think it is hard to understand that for a palace like the Forbidden City, they need an exclusive and beautiful place for important events as long as they do not do any harm to the heritage itself,' he said.

But Ma Zishu, of the China Culture Relics Protection Foundation, told The Beijing News that the museum managers were playing with fire by renting out part of the world heritage site for events such as private dinners.

Four years ago Rui campaigned against the first Starbucks in the imperial palace and the coffee shop was forced out.

Beijing police said they retrieved six artefacts stolen from the museum. They did not give further details about the three pieces that are still missing. Police arrested a suspect on Wednesday.