With an eye to national identity, Beijing vows to stem loss of cultural treasures

State agency pledges harsher punishment for theft or destruction of relics

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 12:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 12:04am

Beijing has pledged to take greater steps to protect its wealth of cultural artefacts, in part by meting out stricter punishment for the theft or destruction of relics.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage will also set up two offices to oversee the movement of antiques across borders in the country’s free-trade zones and bonded areas, according to the organisation’s annual working plan released last week.

The leadership has tied the preservation of artefacts to national identity, with President Xi Jinping calling them an important part of the great revival of China. During a trip to Shanxi province in 2015, Xi urged local cultural administrators to “let antiques speak”, to strengthen national pride and a sense of history.

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Under the working plan, the administration intends to better protect relics against fire, theft and destruction. It calls for stricter punishment for crimes involving relics although details were not given.

During the first half of the 20th century, the mainland saw a flood of antiques out of the country, some looted by foreign troops. Beijing’s official narrative views the loss as a humiliation by Western powers.

In one notable case in 2013, two bronze statues originally from the Summer Palace and dating to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) were returned to Beijing by a French collector. They were among the 12 animal head statutes looted by Anglo-French forces, which raided and burned the palace in 1860 during the Opium war.

Last year, Beijing banned the auction of looted antiques in its latest regulation on cultural relic auctions.

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According to the United Nations cultural organisation Unesco, about 1.67 million Chinese relics are housed in more than 200 museums across 47 countries.

The Chinese Cultural Relics Society said the mainland had lost more than 10 million antiques since 1840 due to wartime looting and illegal excavations.

But Beijing also faces a serious problems of looting at home.

Experts believe the growing tide of wealth on the mainland has given rise to a lucrative black market trade in antiquities as collectors compete to acquire prized artefacts without considering their origin.

Archaeologists have also complained about the destructive impact of aggressive tomb raiders who care little about using explosives to get access to treasures.