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Tomb raiders out of control

Global Times by Deng Jingyin, Tuesday 8 June

Photo from Global Times

Photo from Global Times

The scene is Beijing’s Baoguo Temple antique market. Enamel, porcelain, golden hairpins, jade bracelets, bronze ware and silver plates glisten in the sunlight.

Hundreds of vendors from various parts of China are openly selling “precious antiques” every Thursday at this southern Beijing temple courtyard.

While most of the items are simply replicas of ancient treasures, true connoisseurs may, at times, chance upon genuine pieces of value amid those covered in rust or lumps of earth.

“They were directly dug out of ancient tombs,” a vendor squatting behind a heap of bronze ware whispered.

“I have more valuable things at home… if you want, you can call me,” he said in a low voice while passing a slip with his phone number on it.

A middle-aged man from Yuxian county of Hebei Province, a county famous for cultural relics, claimed they have informers telling them how to contact the people specializing in robbing tombs.

The business is an organized chain with clear divisions of labor, though selling and buying cultural relics by unauthorized organizations are illegal under Chinese law.

Myth of tomb raiding

Only last month, four tomb robbers were sentenced to death for stealing more than 200 relics, including 11 items listed for the State’s top level of protection from tombs in Central China’s Hunan Province. This is the most severe punishment according to the article 328, 329 of the Criminal Law: Whoever robs ancient cultural ruins and ancient tomb burial object that have historical, artistic and scientific value are to be sentenced to not less than three years and not more than 10 years of imprisonment and are to be sentenced to a fine. Severe violation may be met with a sentence of not less than 10 years of imprisonment, life imprisonment or death penalty and are in addition to be sentenced to a fine or confiscation of property.

The four belonged to a 27-member gang, which robbed a dozen tombs near Changsha, including a 2500-year-old tomb, between April 2008 and January 2009.

The other 23 were given jail terms ranging from six months, 13 years to life sentence at the same trial.

They used “professional equipment, digging machinery and explosives for the raids” according to the police.

“Those convicted represent only a small part of the underground tomb robbing gangs,” Wu Shu, author of Who is collecting China, a comprehensive book on the antique market in China, told the Global Times.

Song Zhenhao put the number of tomb robbers at over 100,000. Song is a researcher with China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). He made the estimates in March this year.

This tomb-raiding trend is evident over the last 20 years especially in provinces rich in cultural relics, such as Shaanxi, Hunan, Henan, Gansu, Shandong, Sichuan and Hebei.

“Where there is an ancient tomb, there are tomb robbers. It is really hard to find a tomb which was never ‘visited’ by robbers,” He Shuzhong, director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP), a non-governmental organization dedicated to historical preservation in China, told the Global Times.

These robbers are not only equipped with professional tools, but also have knowledge of archaeology.

The former deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, Zhang Bai told Global People, a Beijing-based magazine that in the past few decades over 200,000 ancient tombs, including 90 percent of the tombs of nobles, were raided.

In the Dabaozi Hill Ruins in Northwest China’s Gansu Province, one of the nation’s top 10 archeological findings for 2006, almost all villagers living nearby thronged to steal and rob the relics inside, like bronze, jade ware, gold and silver items, which later surfaced in the markets of US, France, Japan and Hong Kong.

“No one can tell the exact situation regarding the damage to cultural relics in China and estimate the number of relics stolen,” He Shuzhong said.

Organized business

Over the years, tomb raiding has developed into an organized business with skilled professionals on the job.

People engaged in this field are given specific designations and assigned responsibility respectively for robbing, transportation, harboring and selling. In fact, this is a packaged service in the market.

For example, “zhangyan”, meaning “keeping a watchful eye”, is head of the team, who will locate the tomb, identify the value of the relics and make contact with the primary dealer. “zhiguo”, meaning “supporting the pot” is the coordinator to lead the raiding action, taking care of funding, personnel and equipment.

The Global Times was tipped off by Wu Shu to visit a construction site in Southwest 4th ring road of Beijing, There are always some people in a group waiting beside the excavator. Once they find a clue, they would work together to seize the relics by bribing or threatening the staff working on site. After stealing the relics, the robbers find buyers quickly, either through directly selling in the market or smuggling them overseas. The latter is common option.

Panjiayuan Antique Market in Beijing is the best place to go if people want to look for antiques and collectables.

“However, more than 95 percent of the so-called antiques in Panjiayuan now are fake. Most of the genuine treasures have been exported to Western countries,” Wu said.

Transnational network

Normally, people who are responsible for transportation can find owners for new relics within an hour after they are stolen from a tomb. Then the goods are smuggled out of China in three days via Guangzhou or Shenzhen in Guangdong Province.

“It is hard to distinguish between genuine and imitation relics, even for experts, due to limitations of the identification technology. So some smugglers will take them overseas in the guise of art works,” Wu said.

Artifact scalpers have close relations with the raiders, who can rush to the scene soon after the discovery of an ancient tomb.

A strong gang normally has a satellite locator and radar to locate the tomb, or it builds a wall on the tomb to make it appear as a factory. Thus they can rob it “safely” without attracting attention.

There are more than 3,000 merchants in the world who have each collected more than 10,000 cultural artifacts, controlling a complicated and tight trade network in different countries.

These artifacts are auctioned or used for speculative trading publicly without any risk.

According to Wu, not only people with little education or no money, but some with high education and social status have also been involved in this business.

Wu once met a Chinese American, nicknamed Pluto, in Hong Kong airport. Having gained a PhD in US, he began to follow a so-called master to study tomb raiding when he was in a Chinese university. That laid the foundation for the life he chose.

Now, he has become a “private architecture worker”, which means tomb robber.

“I am not lured by money, to be frank, but by a lofty ideal – to apply what I have learnt and thereby prove my value,” he told Wu.

Pluto added that it is government’s inaction that has resulted in the mess that the market is now. Many a young experts have lost confidence about career in China after witnessing the loss of the nation’s treasures. “They need to find some way to prove their ability to do something.”

Saving the heritage

To save the treasures of a country with a history of more than 5, 000 years, some experts are still doing their best. One of them is Xie Chensheng, 88, the doyen of Chinese scholars in the field who took part in drafting the Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics.

“Authorities couldn’t get a picture of the overall situation relating to artifacts due to insufficient and incomplete research… they never face up to the fact that more underground relics are being illegally obtained by criminals,” Xie explained.

He emphasized that heritage is the nation’s property and the foundation of Chinese culture, and could not be put on sale.

The Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics, which was implemented by the State Council in 2002, set more specific rules for exploring underground artifacts.

“The government wants to do something, but it is hard to implement the regulation. Rather, we can say that law-enforcing departments, such as the local police, seldom implement the rules or face difficulties in implementation,” Xie added.

Furthermore, the director He believed that lack of public morality made relic robbing easier. “The public are lacking the awareness to realize that it is their responsibility to protect the relics from being stolen or robbed,” he said.

Compared with break-in cases, witnesses seldom report tomb raiding cases to the police, he said.

Gao Xiaolong, director of laws and regulation of Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage, said that laws and regulations are there, but the problem is that certain parts of the law are vaguely written, which increases the difficulty of enforcing it.

For example, the law requires that real estate developers should ask cultural heritage officials to survey for artifacts before “large-scale” construction. But “large-scale” in the law is poorly defined, and thus the survey was seldom carried out.

However, the Global Times found that when talking about ways to deal with the problem of relics in the market, during the interviews, both experts and officials hesitated to be specific.

“To be frank, there is no answer now since we don’t have a the full picture (of the underground relic market),” said Xie, with a sigh of helplessness.

Once the authorities decide to crack down, they must solve the problem and not show any leniency.

Asked about the future, the elderly man, who had devoted his whole life to the protection of cultural relics, was silent.

What he said was borne out by what the Global Times found in Baoguo Temple. Sellers talked about their experience and stories behind the relics without any fear.

“Government keeps cracking down on such offenses but is confronted with various obstacles…Judicial supervision should be strengthened, and the punishment should be deterrent enough,” an official of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, who requested anonymity, told the Global Times.

Read the original article.

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