Hong Kong is urged to stop an illicit trade in artefacts from the mainland A leading mainland heritage campaigner has called on Hong Kong to pass laws to safeguard China's cultural and artistic legacy. Beijing Cultural Heritage Watch director He Shuzhong also plans to recruit young Hongkongers to help in his fight. Volunteers will be asked to monitor whether Hong Kong antique shops and art galleries are selling goods illegally smuggled from the mainland. Mr He claims Hong Kong is the largest market for stolen Chinese relics and art. The government has persistently refused to pass protective legislation, he says, and will not follow the lead of the mainland and most advanced nations in signing the 1970 Unesco convention on stopping the illegal export of cultural relics. A government spokesman said new laws aimed at combating the trade in illicit cultural property 'had been considered', but Hong Kong 'practises free trade and does not have the tradition of interference with private property'. Imposing import and export controls on cultural property 'may arouse grave concern within the community'', he said. Sources say there are no plans to bring in effective laws. Any new law must have the support of the trade and local collectors, and care must be taken not to 'create hindrances and restrictions unnecessary to the normal business of the local traders', the spokesman said. Mr He says this non-interventionist attitude is helping Hong Kong remain the main channel for stolen artefacts from the mainland. 'The past 13 years have seen the most terrible situation - illicit excavation and traffic have been extreme in China,' he said. Mr He has written to the government and university and cultural organisations in Hong Kong urging protective legislation. 'It would be nice to see Hong Kong people loving the protection of their cultural heritage more than they love trading and collecting it,' he said. 'I want to see cultural bodies in Hong Kong helping by campaigning against laws that permit people to profit from smuggled relics. Hong Kong legislators should demand laws to stop this traffic. It is an evil trade.' At present, the plundering of tombs or other national treasures on the mainland and the illegal export of arts and valuables without permission are serious crimes, but once a precious item has been successfully brought over the border, it can be legally and openly advertised and sold in Hong Kong. Mr He and Culture Heritage Watch have been campaigning for five years to force Hong Kong to take some responsibility for the traffic in stolen relics. On Friday, the civil servant attached to Beijing's National Administration on Cultural Heritage received a major American award for his work. The Archaeological Institute of America's Outstanding Public Service Award recognises an individual who has done the most in the past year to promote public awareness and interest in archaeology. The government said on Friday it had been liaising with the mainland about combating the illicit trade in cultural property. But there are no proposals for swift action. 'The complexities and problems are appreciated by both sides,' it said in a statement. The present penalties are fines of up to $2 million and six months' jail, but there have been no arrests for five years and the penalties have never been imposed. Mr He said: 'I want to talk to your politicians and students face to face, to explain to them the role Hong Kong is playing in the loss of China's cultural identity.' The mainland treats illegal dealing in relics seriously. Tomb plunderers and those who seek to smuggle precious items can expect long jail terms, if they escape execution. Neil Brodie, director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre based at Cambridge University in Britain, says many countries have been slow to recognise the threat posed to the future survival of their cultural heritage by an unrestrained market in antiquities. 'Over the past couple of years, this has changed,' Dr Brodie said. 'Major players, such as the United Kingdom, Japan and Switzerland, have either signed up to the Unesco convention or are about to do so. The US did back in the 1980s. It is time Hong Kong followed suit.'' . Professor Lynne DiStefano, of the Department of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong, believes Hong Kong has a moral obligation to sign the Unesco convention. 'More importantly, I believe there is a moral obligation for dealers and collectors to act in an ethical manner, or be compelled to do so by enforceable legislation,' she said. Hong Kong Customs have not detected a single case of cultural smuggling since 1998.