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Preservation required for underground relics

China Daily by Lara Farrar on Fri 05/03/2010

Important historical artifacts uncovered on construction sites are being destroyed or stolen because of flaws in the law

Underground cultural artifacts are being seriously damaged or destroyed amid Beijing’s ongoing wave of redevelopment, said a local non-governmental organization dedicated to historical preservation in China.

Of the more than 4,000 construction projects launched in Beijing in 2008 and 2009, only 89, or 2 percent, received a thorough archaeological survey, according to the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP).

“No one can tell exactly the real situation regarding damage to Beijing’s underground relics,” said He Shuzhong, head of the CHP.

In one instance, according to the CHP, more than one million pieces of porcelain from the late Yuan and mid-Ming dynasties were unearthed on the site of a construction project in the Xicheng district of Beijing. The relics were not formally protected and many of the pieces were stolen after the find.

“CHP estimates that the level of destruction of underground relics in Beijing is more serious than that of relics above ground,” he said.

A national survey conducted by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) revealed more than 30,000 historic sites, including ancient tombs, temples and homes, have disappeared in China over the last three decades as a result of redevelopment.

Tombs from the Han and Tang dynasties were destroyed during the construction of a Mercedes-Benz factory in Beijing’s Yizhuang Economic Development Zone, according to CHP.

“We have reasons to believe that the aforementioned cases represent only a small minority of incidents in which underground historical relics have been destroyed,” He said.

China’s Law on Protection of Cultural Relics, implemented by the State Council in 2002, outlines specific rules for archaeological exploration of buried relics. Yet the regulations are seldom implemented, said He.

“These regulations are very similar to those of developed countries or international agreements,” he said. “However, these regulations are not properly carried out.”

According to Gao Xiaolong of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage (BMBCH), the problem is that certain sections of the law for the protection of underground relics are vaguely written.

The rules require developers to contact cultural heritage officials to survey for historical artifacts before large-scale construction begins.

“Large-scale” is poorly defined, said Gao in January.

Last year, BMBCH released a list of sites that might contain buried artifacts. The list includes 21 sites in 15 Beijing districts and suburban counties.

Gao said it is difficult to adequately supervise construction sites not included on that list as well as building projects with an area of less than 10,000 sq m.

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