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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: May 27, 2011 NO. 22 JUNE 2, 2011
Lost in Profits
The Palace Museum is swamped in criticism for failing to take care of precious national treasures

NATIONAL TREASURE: The Taihe Hall in the Palace Museum in downtown Beijing (CFP)

However, security experts argue hi-tech anti-theft systems alone do not make for a foolproof security system.

"All anti-theft systems are tools. You still need to depend on the industriousness of people who operate the system," said Wang Dawei, a professor at the Chinese People's Public Security University.

The theft from the Palace Museum raised concerns for other museums to introduce effective security systems consisting of trained guards and better surveillance equipment.

On May 11, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage ordered museums throughout the country to close temporarily to review their security protocols.

Shan Jixiang, Director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, said criminals were going after bigger targets, including artifacts listed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list.

"Even though the Central Government has spent 150 million yuan ($21.96 million) to improve security, the country's protection of its relics remains relatively poor," Shan said, citing unskilled staff, outdated facilities and lax supervision as major problems.

In March, Shan submitted a proposal during the Fourth Session of the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, suggesting the state subsidize free-admission museums for security enhancement and accident insurance for security guards.

The proposal would sound more persuasive to lawmakers, said Wang Chao, a researcher at the Lu Xun Museum in Beijing. "The recent theft from the Palace Museum is not totally bad. At least security facilities and the administration of museums across the country are likely to be upgraded."

Suspicious business

After coming under criticism for having poor security, the Palace Museum found itself in the center of a controversy again in mid-May.

The newest wave of criticism was triggered by a netizen, who wrote on the Internet that he had received an invitation letter to join a posh club in the Palace Museum after attending the unveiling ceremony of the rebuilt Jianfu Hall in March.

On May 11, Rui Chenggang, a news anchor at national broadcaster CCTV, disclosed on his micro-blog the Jianfu Hall had been converted into a private club that is open only to the rich and is so exclusive that no more than 500 people can obtain a membership.

Rui also said a foreign tourist guide even informed him a U.S. billionaire had just arranged to hold a dinner with his family in a building in the magnificent hall, even though that space is still closed to the general public.

The Jianfu Hall was ruined by a fire in 1923, and was rebuilt between 2000 and 2005 with $14 million donated by Hong Kong businessman Ronnie Chan. The garden of the hall, also known as the West Garden, was built in 1740 and was the second largest garden in the Palace Museum.

On May 13, the Palace Museum issued a statement, saying the Jianfu Palace is mainly used to receive domestic and overseas distinguished guests and hold lectures, seminars and press conferences. "It would be impossible to make it a private club," said the statement.

But netizens immediately disclosed new evidence to the contrary the next day—photos of an agreement between the management of Jianfu Hall and members of the private club.

The agreement said club members, as well as their spouses and guests, could enjoy the privilege of holding banquets and conferences at the hall if they paid membership fees regularly.

The agreement was signed by the Forbidden City Cultural Development Co., a marketing unit of the Palace Museum. Since March, the company reportedly had posted advertisements soliciting chefs, waiters, bartenders and security guards.

On May 14, Rui said on his micro-blog obtaining the membership of the club in the Palace Museum cost at least 1 million yuan ($153,800). "The total of 500 million yuan ($76.90 million) in membership fees alone is five times as much as the rebuilding costs of the Jianfu Hall," Rui said.

The Palace Museum is a national treasure that belongs to all Chinese and should not be used for profit-making business operations, Rui asserted.

On May 16, the Palace Museum admitted that there was indeed a plan to convert a palace hall into a lucrative private club but said museum leaders knew nothing about it.

"The club was planned by the Forbidden City Cultural Development Co. without approval of the management of the Palace Museum," said a statement.

Liu Chaoying, Deputy Director of the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, said for-profit businesses should not operate in state-owned historical and cultural sites like the Palace Museum.

"You can find a restaurant or a cafe in every museum around the world, for example in the Louvre," Liu said. "But, the eateries are meant to better serve the tourists and reflect the cultural characteristics of the site, not just to make money."

"Public museums should serve the public, rather than individuals. The Palace Museum has gone against its code of ethics," said Ma Zishu, Director General of the China Culture Relics Protection Foundation.

In fact, the apparently inappropriate use of cultural landmarks does not stop at the Forbidden City.

Another plan to convert an ancient palace site in the Chengde Mountain Resort into a luxury club has also been exposed. The resort is a royal complex of palaces and temples built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in Hebei Province.

"It is undeniable that the current system for the preservation of cultural relics has several loopholes," said Gao Guoxi, a sociologist at Shanghai-based Fudan University, told Xinhua.

Gao said, in China, it is not rare ancient cultural relics were abused for economic gains.

An Jiayao, a researcher with the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said although China had trumpeted its preservation of cultural relics in past decades, a lack of awareness of the significance of these relics had resulted in poor enforcement of relevant regulations.

Palace Museum

The Palace Museum was established in 1925. The magnificent structure, also known as the Forbidden City, and the vast holding of the imperial collections of paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, and decorative objects make it one of the most prestigious museums in China and the world. In 1961 the imperial palace was designated by the State Council as one of China's foremost-protected cultural heritage sites, and in 1987 was made a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Palace Museum holds a total of 1,807,558 artifacts, including 1,684,490 items designated as nationally protected "valuable cultural relics."

(Source: The Palace Museum)

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