What's more important to a nation than its culture? That question is being asked on the mainland after a short, slightly built man on a tour of the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City evaded security and stole nine precious items from a collection on loan from Hong Kong's private Liangyi Museum. He was caught 58 hours later by police using sophisticated surveillance equipment in an internet cafe.
Beijing's streets and public places are heavily monitored, partly to curtail dissent. But it is in protecting heritage, history and art where such vigilance is needed. The museum and Forbidden City are, after all, the foremost symbol of Chinese culture and are major tourist attractions. Nowhere else is as culturally, historically or artistically significant. The very fabric of the nation is enmeshed within their walls.
Security in the capital was stepped up before the Olympic Games in 2008 to the point that roads are lined with surveillance devices. There are now few public locations where officials are not watching, either directly or electronically. In a place as important as the Palace Museum, so filled with valuable relics, security should be even tighter.
Outwardly, that would seem to be the case: it has 1,600 anti-theft alarms, 400 security cameras and 100 guard dogs. But monitoring is clearly wanting, as the man was able to smash through a wall, break open a display case, evade all, clamber onto a roof with most of his booty and over a 10-metre-high wall. Museum officials have apologised and promised to improve security. Amid reports that they've been renting out one of the museum's best halls and turned it into a private club for billionaires, faith in their authority has been shattered.
Like the Louvre in Paris or the Prado in Madrid, the Palace Museum is a symbol of national heritage. In keeping with that importance, exhibits should have the best possible protection, in order to ensure high regard for the preservation of culture.