Old Version
Cover Story

Chasing Dirty crooks

Combating the recent surge in tomb robbery and cultural relics trafficking is going to require more trained professionals and revisions to existing law, experts say

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

On October 19, police in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province finally caught up with a man long wanted for fencing stolen cultural relics. Liu Jiyuan was charged with trafficking large quantities of antiquities between 2015 and 2018 from an arts and crafts shop in the provincial capital of Nanjing.  

Among the items were sacred Buddhist relics, bronzes and sarcophagi made of silver and gold. 

The Ministry of Public Security and the National Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA) have launched three campaigns to combat crimes like these since 2017, detaining 5,967 suspects and recovering more than 40,000 cultural relics in total.  

To date, 38 of the country’s 42 most wanted suspects for trafficking of antiquities have been caught. 

On August 31, 2020, the two government agencies kicked off their latest campaign against robbery of ancient grottoes, tombs and pagodas across the country. While crackdowns on crime involving cultural relics have become increasingly frequent, authorities are still struggling to eradicate the illegal trade in antiquities amid jurisdiction issues and lack of personnel.
Short Arm of the Law
In the area of modern day Shouxian County in the city of Huainan, Anhui Province once stood the ancient capital of the Chu state in the late Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). The county is often referred to as an underground museum for the wealth of ancient artifacts hidden in its soil. 

Shen Jun, head of the Criminal Investigation Brigade of Shouxian County Public Security Bureau (PSB), told NewsChina that grave looters stand to make huge profits with a relatively low risk of serving jail time. “Law enforcement has recently stepped-up efforts to fight relic-related crime, but it’s still pervasive,” he said. 

In 2011, the Amendment to the Chinese Criminal Law abolished capital punishment for tomb robbery offenses. Since then, legal scholars have advocated more severe punishments.  

Sun Hua, a professor at the School of Archeology and Museology of Peking University, argued that the 2011 change in law correlates with the surge in tomb robbery cases across the country. 

Most data on tomb robbery comes from law enforcement agencies and the NCHA. However, many cases go unreported. For example, while Huainan’s Wuwangdun Tomb, the burial site of Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) founder Wu Wang, was robbed in 2015, the crime was only brought to light in 2018 when a suspect in another tomb robbery case in Dingzhou, Hebei Province told police officers about it. “Crackdowns always lag behind the crime wave,” Huang Shengzhong, head of the Criminal Police Detachment of Huainan PSB, told NewsChina. “You can’t file and investigate a case before it happens.” 

In early 2019, police officers busted gangs that had excavated Taosi North Cemetery in Shanxi Province, which has tombs dating as far back as the late Western Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 BCE). During their investigation, police learned that some of the tombs had already been raided in 2013. Taosi North Cemetery was only designated a registered historic area after the latest robbery was discovered. 

Han Zhihui, head of the Linfen Investigation Center of Cultural Relic Crimes under the Shanxi Provincial Public Security Department, told our reporter that many ancient tombs were not in designated protected areas when they were robbed. “As long as a looted tomb goes undiscovered, it is difficult to bring the criminals to justice,” he said. 

Tomb robbers stay on the move, making it difficult for police to track them. Huang told our reporter that Huainan PSB set up a database of people from areas at high risk of tomb robbery who have since moved to cities. In Shanghai, police launched an information-sharing platform with authorities in key provinces and cities to keep tabs on those involved in the cultural relics trade. 

More recently, the Ministry of Public Security and the NCHA established a center to combat tomb robbery to provide information and technical support to police officers investigating antiquities crimes. 

Multiple jurisdictions pose a challenge for law enforcement. Because suspects usually cross regional borders to fence their loot, local police where the crime occurred often find their hands are tied.  

Authorities in Linfen, Shanxi Province working on a tomb robbery case found the looters had sold off the artifacts, which exchanged hands numerous times across multiple borders. Prosecutors said that since the crimes and transactions did not occur in the province, local authorities could not pursue the case. 

As fighting such crime requires special skills and knowledge of forensic technologies, lack of expertise is a major challenge for local authorities.  

Han Zhihui of the Linfen Investigation Center has organized several training programs for police working in cultural relic crime. He told NewsChina that officers must have a deep understanding of the history, culture and heritage involved to effectively build cases. 

A recent job vacancy at the cultural relic crime unit of the Ministry of Public Security required applicants to have a background in archeology, cultural heritage or museology. After years of battling grave robbery, Shanxi Province started a human resources database of specialists in cultural relic law enforcement. “Professionals have to be trained on the ground,” Huang said. 

However, law enforcement nationwide is under mounting pressure as robbers become increasingly professional. So far, only Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, home to the Terracotta Warriors, one of China’s most famous tourist attractions, has established an institute dedicated to combating cultural relic crimes. 

Huang told our reporter that to address the personnel shortfalls, Huainan police set up a command center where police officers from several departments cooperate on tomb robbery cases. 

Shen Jun of Shouxian County PSB in Huainan told our reporter that most local law enforcement agencies lack the technical reconnaissance and online security capabilities to conduct effective investigations. “We have to seek help from municipal and provincial bureaus. Clearing up a cultural relic crime is usually a lengthy marathon.” 

In most cases, multiple police task forces are dispatched to investigate and track suspects, which can drain local coffers. 

While the central government has allocated funding, most flows to provinces rich in cultural relics. “Anhui Province was given no budget at all. There are always funding shortages,” he said. 

Shen told our reporter that local authorities cannot protect ancient sites without help. For example, Shouxian County has more than 160 registered historic sites and more than 80 ancient tombs but only 15 employees at the local cultural and tourism bureau charged with overseeing them. He suggested hiring more professionals to protect important tomb sites. 

Wang Yunxia, director of the Institute of Cultural Heritage Law at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, said that a lack of dedicated task forces is behind the overall weak law enforcement in tomb robbery cases. She said that professional and specialized cultural relic teams should not only be set up but also granted extensive administrative authority.

A tomb robber caught by police in Qingshen County, Sichuan Province points to 102 stolen Ming Dynasty artifacts, July 2010

Taking Names
Authorities classify cultural relics in four classes based on scarcity, fragility and cultural significance, which determine the severity of punishment. The minimum penalty for theft of first-class cultural relics is a mandatory 10 years or more, while second-class relic theft gets less than 10 years. 

In the Wuwangdun Tomb robbery case, cultural protection authorities identified 26 bronze chimes as second-class cultural relics. Huainan police disagreed. “We think they are first-class cultural relics,” Gao Kun, head of the Criminal Investigation Team of the Shannan New District PSB in Huai’an, Jiangsu, told NewsChina. They applied for an appraisal review but were unsuccessful. 

“The most difficult part is appraising cultural relics,” Huang Shengzhong told our reporter. In 2018, the NCHA designated 41 cultural relic appraisal and evaluation institutions across the country. According to statistics from the NCHA, these institutions have provided appraisals in more than 1,300 tomb robbery cases. 

According to China’s Cultural Relics Protection Law, all cultural relics unearthed belong to the State. Article 50 of the Law stipulates the legal channels for acquiring cultural relics: inheritance or gift, purchases from legal cultural relics shops, auction, or “exchange and transfer of cultural relics from individuals with legal ownership.” 

Wang Yunxia said the last category is ambiguous because “transfer” can include donations, inheritances and transactions that may overlap with the previous categories. “Acquiring cultural relics is a fundamental right of citizens and should be more clearly defined to avoid ambiguities,” she said. 

Qian Weiqing, a senior partner at Beijing Dentons Law Firm, said that the holder of an artifact is not responsible for proving its origins, as that is a presumption of guilt which violates the principle of acquisition in good faith. “It is legal as long as there is no evidence that a cultural relic has been stolen, robbed from tombs, smuggled or prohibited from sale,” he told our reporter. 

In recent years, there has been an increase in private collectors of ancient artifacts and cultural relics. A police insider told our reporter on condition of anonymity that while the Ministry of Public Security has been promoting a cultural relic registration system for individual owners, it has not gone smoothly. 

Huo Zhengxin, deputy dean of the School of International Law under the China University of Political Science and Law, told NewsChina that there has been resistance to the registration of private cultural relics, as many experts in the field said it would legitimize the vast number of illegally acquired collections. 

“It’s not enough to revise the Cultural Relics Protection Law. It’s necessary to revise related laws and regulations including the Civil Code and the Property Law,” he said. “It is, however, difficult to change the current legal framework.”

Top: Police display retrieved bronze artifacts in Linfen, Shaanxi Province Above: Reclaimed stolen tomb artifacts dating back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties on display in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang Province, November 2011

A police officer in Fengxiang County, Shaanxi Province inspects a reclaimed artifact, August 2017

Print