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Milestone MOU Signed Between U.S. and China on U.S. Import of Chinese Cultural Relics

January 14th 2009 marked a historical moment for everyone who cares about the cultural heritage protection of China. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) had finally been signed on this day by representatives from the Chinese and American governments, after years of negotiation, which requires the U.S. custom to confiscate any archaeological material from the Paleolithic period through the Tang Dynasty (618 -907 A.D.) or any monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old, if the importer had not been able to show official permission from the Chinese government.

What is even more important is that this MOU also requests the Chinese government to improve its work in the following areas:

To increase investment on the education of the Chinese public to raise their heritage preservation awareness;

To increase annual budget of national and local cultural heritage preservation related government offices and institutions, so that they can expand their work as urgently needed by the challenging reality;

To tighten up the management of domestic cultural relic trade market;

To improve the efficiency of the Chinese custom’s counter cultural relic-looting systems;

To take stronger actions to prevent the illegally excavated cultural relics to be looted to Hong Kong and Macao;

To make sure the state-owned museums will never make purchase of the cultural relics illegally exported to the international market.

To explain why such kind of clauses was written, we must understand the background of this MOU. In recent two decades, as China gradually opened up its doors to the world, a very high percentage of the ancient Chinese archaeological sites or tombs were raided. Most of the unearthed cultural relics were smuggled to the black market outside China, especially in the U.S. and western Europe, for amazingly high profit. So it would be very effective for the Chinese government to curb the smuggling business if the U.S. government helped to restrain the growing demand in the market. But this negotiation had been challenged by the U.S. antique dealers and auction houses from the very beginning, as they believe that this will put the U.S. consumers in a very disadvantaged position when competing with buyers of these “stained” treasures from other countries, even those from China. With all the pressure from these interest groups, the U.S. government had pushed the Chinese government very hard to regulate its own antique market, which turned out to be a very good thing we are delighted to see happening.

The signing of this MOU proves that the hard work of the two governments, as well as cultural heritage preservation NGOs on both sides finally bears fruits. As a Chinese NGO involved in this process, we are extremely happy to see it eventually materialized. But we also understand that the implementation of this MOU is going to be more challenging. Even if this MOU is a success, there are still many other countries that could have been potentially target markets for smuggled Chinese cultural relics. China growing middle class could have been another enticing buying power of these illegally obtained relics. That’s why we believe that this work can only be successful with more education opportunities for the public, more transparency in the government management system. We hope that we will be able to contribute to this in the future.

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