China powerless to halt the looting of its heritage


November 26, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

XIAN, China -- In a long, narrow lane of curio stalls leading to a famed Muslim temple here, visitors who show a passing interest in the unusual are certain to be invited to step into the back rooms of the tiny shops for private showings of alleged historical artifacts.

Welcome to the underground world of Chinese relics. Caveat emptor.

"Han Dynasty," claims one of the vendors, throwing open several drawers of a decaying cupboard crammed with old pieces of jade, coins and jewelry, each wrapped in wads of yellowed newspaper pages.

"Hold this up to the light," he says, handing over a small, brownish stone that he says is jade. "Very old jade is that dark color -- not green. See how clear it is in the light."

It might be jade. It might even be from the period of the Western Han Dynasty, 202 B.C. to A.D. 9. And it just might be worth a lot more than the $30 or so that, in the end, might be negotiated as its price.

It likely would take an expert to tell for sure.

What is certain, however, is that China's rich historical heritage -- pillaged by foreigners over the centuries and ravaged by mindless vandalism during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s -- remains up for grabs.

A 1982 relics protection law theoretically put under strict state control all Chinese artifacts older than 200 years or still in the ground or under water. Relics thieves here can be executed.

But with insufficient financing, even Chinese officials admit that this regulation has proved toothless. A recent national survey showed that of 350,000 identified historical sites, only 258 have been put under national protection.

To feed the booming, lucrative world trade in Chinese antiquities, black-market, bribe-oiled networks stretch from graves in isolated villages to plush galleries in Hong Kong, London and New York City.

"Our heritage is falling prey to smugglers, tomb robbers and thieves," Peng Qingyun, vice director of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics, told the China Daily, the English-language state newspaper, in October. "The situation is extremely grave."

China says more than 40,000 ancient tombs in 11 of its 30 regions were robbed in just two years, 1989 and 1990. The grave robbers often use high-speed drills to quickly carry out their thefts.

They are even frequently breaking into China's thousands of small, county-level museums, where security is minimal.

Xian, the capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province, is a major source of the loot. The city has been the capital of 11 dynasties stretching over 1,100 years, longer than any other Chinese city.

The Far Eastern Economic Review noted this year that scholars believe the Xian area holds at least 2 million graves of officials from these dynasties, all likely containing some valuable objects.

Shaanxi officials declared a renewed war this month on tomb robbing, but they will have to be everywhere at once to keep up with the increasingly bold looters.

Earlier this year, thousands of villagers were found to be openly digging up tombs in one Shaanxi district. In October, a Shaanxi gang used dynamite to blast open a Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) tomb.

To compete with the smugglers, China recently opened its first official shop selling antiques more than 200 years old. This fall, it also held the first state auction of cultural relics, a total of 2,000 items valued by officials at more than $20 million and some dating back to the 11th century B.C.

The auction triggered suspicions. The relics' owners weren't identified. Independent appraisals weren't allowed beforehand.

The event -- held to raise money to preserve China's antiques -- was preceded by a rare wave of open criticism in the Chinese press, which questioned the propriety of the state selling off national treasures.

The auction flopped. Organizers blamed their failure to sell off many of the most expensive items on the "sluggish international art market." But many observers believe the auction's state-set minimum prices simply couldn't compete with those offered by smugglers.

In a sharp turnabout, Chinese officials now say they have no plans for more state auctions or to otherwise free up China's relics trade. That can only be good news for the thieves, who still have the market cornered.

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