By James MacDonald
BEIJING - As the US considers China’s request for restrictions on the import of archaeological material, the question of China’s alleged organised plunder of Tibetan artefacts is about to come under US congressional scrutiny. The move is likely to be seized upon by dealers in the US who oppose restrictions on the trade in Chinese artefacts.
Dana Rohrabacher, a conservative Republican representative in the United States Congress and a long-standing critic of China’s human rights record, has announced he will lead an investigation into what he suspects was the systematic looting of Tibetan art and objects by Chinese authorities since the 1949 Communist revolution. The inquiry has coincided with a high profile auction in Beijing of artefacts that previously belonged to Tibetan monasteries, and which seeped out into international markets sometime last century before being bought by the leading Taiwan-based collector Wang Du.
The auctioneers, Chengming, claim that the 32 items sold on 17 September left China before 1949. “I think these treasures mostly have been taken outside China before the revolution, maybe during the Eight Warlords period”, said Chengming executive Shen Yunxie, referring to the chaotic era in the years after the overthrow of the Qing imperial dynasty in 1911.
The objects include a set of jade carvings known as the “Seven treasures” which were presented to the sixth Panchen Lama by the Emperor Qianlong in 1781, which was knocked down for Rmb 9.02 million ($1.11 million), a jewel-encrusted gold sculpture of a triton shell which went for Rmb 11.22 million ($1.38 million), and a pagoda-shaped three-tier prayer wheel which sold for Rmb 11 million ($1.35 million).
Most of the buyers were mainland Chinese collectors, although the Chinese authorities had already given clearance for the items to be exported if bought by foreigners.
But other experts on Tibet think the objects may well have left their owners after Mao Zedong quelled the Tibetan uprising in 1959, when the Dalai Lama left for exile in India. One US critic of Chinese policy in Tibet, Warren W. Smith, points out that Tibetan monasteries, government institutions and aristocratic homes were then targeted as “Three Pillars of Feudalism”.
“Tibetan wealth was redistributed by being sold on the international market or melted down, all for the benefit of the Chinese state”, Smith said in a commentary for the Washington-funded Radio Free Asia. He noted that hard currency earned from truckloads of Tibetan artefacts shipped out in the early 1960s would have helped Mao pay off China’s debt to the Soviet Union in 1962 amid the 30 million famine deaths just incurred in his 1959-61 Great Leap Forward campaign.
Congressman Rohrabacher suspects the Chinese government carried out systematic confiscation of valuables before the widespread destruction of monastery buildings during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. “Just as the Nazis stole from European Jews, Chinese officials have refused to return or apologise for their pillaging of Tibet”, Rohrabacher said when announcing his inquiry.
The California congressman is being helped by an exiled senior Tibetan monk, Rinbur Tulku, who has written in his biography about the destruction of Lhasa’s Johkang temple and Ganden monastery during the Cultural Revolution and who helped retrieve some Tibetan religious treasures in China in 1982.