THE flow of cultural relics out of China is comparable to the world drug trade and must be treated the same way if the nation's history is to be protected, according to an international crime expert. Law enforcers should shift their focus from grave robbers and dealers to those who buy the looted art, said Kenneth Polk, who is visiting Hong Kong from the University of Melbourne's criminology department. 'The Chinese are focusing, for political reasons, on a hardline 'stop the supply' strategy. It doesn't work. If you try to stop the drug traffic by focusing on a source country while demand remains high, it's a recipe for a number of disasters,' he said, pointing to the violence in cocaine-producing Colombia. 'The scale of it is astounding. We're not going to solve the plunder problem and the [antiquities] trafficking problem by aiming our prohibition attempts at source countries.' Professor Polk said the illegal trade in antiquities from China was worth more than US$500 million (HK$3.9 billion) a year. Like drug trafficking, it was violent, international, relied on thriving demand and involved corruption of public officials. 'It comes down to a moral question. If people who have a lot of money are willing to spend it on plundered baubles, the trade will continue,' he said. 'We need to make people aware of the cost to history and culture of that plunder. 'Hopefully, 50 to 100 years from now, we'll have collectors who want to know that the material they have has been fully investigated in terms of its history, and that the countries it's from are comfortable with its flow. Until we solve the issue of demand, the cultural heritage of all of us is in great danger.' 'Moral persuasion' had to be backed up by stiff penalties for people who disregarded the importance of preservation and bought items stolen from, or hacked off, sites such as Cambodia's Angkor Wat or ancient graves in China. 'People have to know that if they mess around with this stuff, they're going to lose it,' Professor Polk said. 'You don't necessarily have to throw them in jail - if they spent five million bucks on a bauble and you take it away, that goes down rather lumpy.' Professor Polk said countries rich in cultural relics must acknowledge international interest and promote a legal trade in selected items while trying to stamp out indiscriminate looting. He said some were now taking an unrealistic and overly nationalistic view - the view that their history was theirs alone and they would rather lock it away than give others access to it. This was driving the trade underground. 'People will trade in this material and it's desirable that they do - it gives us a better understanding of our history and our culture. The question is how can you have a trade that preserves the material and the sites. 'It makes sense to have negotiated systems where source countries, archaeologists and people in the market work out ways [to excavate and deal in antiquities with minimum damage to sites].' Professor Polk said China already had a limited legal market in Beijing, but the quality of the items available was poor, so it did little to stop the illegal trade.