Tough task to keep China's culture safe

Govt's lack of resources puts artefacts and heritage buildings at risk of theft, destruction

BEIJING • The 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, according to China's culture chief.

In an interview published yesterday in the influential 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.

"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 the road ahead would be hard and difficult.

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 said.

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.

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.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2015, with the headline 'Tough task to keep China's culture safe'. Print Edition | Subscribe