The Reuters News Agency in Beijing reported yesterday that many treasures of China’s thousands of years of culture face being plundered, sometimes violently, or disappearing under bulldozers as the authorities either do not care or do not have the resources to look after them. This is all according to a top Chinese cultural chief.
In an interview published this week in an official Communist Party newspaper The Study Times, Director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage Li Xiaojie said the situation he faced in trying to protect the country’s culture was “severe”.
From 2009 to last year, the police uncovered more than 7,000 cases of cultural artefacts being stolen, smuggled out of the country or otherwise plundered, especially tombs, Mr Li told the newspaper, published by the Central Party School, which trains rising officials.
Holes made by tomb raiders in cornfields, Luonan County, Shaanxi Province, July 2011 Photo China Daily
‘These criminal activities are organised, use high technology and violence, and steal to order,” Mr Li said, adding that efforts to crack down had achieved some results, but he said the road ahead would be hard and difficult.
Henan gang leader Pan Liuso detained at Danfeng Country Detention House accused of tomb raiding China Daily pic
He said that there were also more heritage buildings damaged by fire. There were 74 reported cases since 2010, with more than 30 per cent of the fires caused by electrical faults.
The fires caused terrible damage to the heritage buildings, with some totally destroyed .
Another problem was that some local governments seemed not to care about the treasures in their jurisdiction, or simply lacked the ability to look after them.
“In some culturally protected areas or where there are construction controls, there is illegal construction, damaging the historical features, including the treasures themselves. Some precious ancient sites and buildings have vanished beneath bulldozers,” Mr Li said.
In many cases, the damage was actually caused by local governments and officials, he alleged.
There were 789 such reported cases between 2012 and last year, with 146 of them involving major historical and cultural sites protected at the national level.
He said there were 29 such cases last year, quoting the Bao’en Temple in Sichuan province and Arxan Railway Station in Inner Mongolia as examples where illegal constructions had been carried out.
Arxan Shan Railway Station: classic building destroyed by developers last year
But Mr Li said this was hardly surprising as his administration lacked people and money to protect cultural artefacts. In four provinces, there were fewer than 10 people available for the work.
Chinese Art comments: Really Mr Li Xiaojie is commenting on two unrelated phenomena which should be considered as separate issues: the issue of criminally damaging and stealing from ancient tombs and similar sites and the quite separate issue of the destruction of ancient sites and historic buildings by commercial property developers, often working in league with corrupt local authority officials.
Fortunately, President Xi Jinping is now vigorously ensuring that corrupt public officials are tracked down, tried and punished severely. This is at the centre of official Chinese policy. Developers who work with local officials and/or destroy state-protected assets can fully expect to be in the spotlight. State officials, instructed by the Presidency, will likely soon get around to arresting and punishing them.
The issue of tomb raiding has been around ever since the Chinese art market started to take off in the 1990s and is not new. Several factors are starting to militate against it as a profitable activity. The international Chinese art boom is now over, for the moment. Buyers, collectors and auction houses are now very cautious and are insisting on ‘provenance’ which is something the tomb raiders can never provide. Also, the authorities are poised to clamp down on them and when this occurs it will be ruthless.