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    New Website Aims to Bring Home Missing Treasures

    Government hopes online portal will help it catch increasingly tech-savvy tomb raiders.

    China has set up a website where users can tip off authorities about the country’s stolen or lost cultural relics, thereby expediting the recovery of national treasures, according to a government statement issued earlier this week.

    After a year of development by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Ministry of Public Security, the website went live on Tuesday. The site, whose English name is the “Stolen (Lost) Cultural Relics Information Publishing Platform of China,” is essentially a registry of missing cultural property that allows the public to report clues on the whereabouts of the items.

    “As soon as there is a clue to the cultural relics displayed on the website, the police will take action to find and recover them,” Chen Shiqü, deputy chief of the Ministry of Public Security’s criminal investigation bureau, told The Beijing News in an interview this week. “Now, we have one more channel [to find the items],” said Chen.

    In the past year, the two government institutions behind the website have amassed more than 2,200 nuggets of information about relics stolen from state-owned institutions and museums since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

    As of Friday afternoon, details of 180 items — including age, size, location, date of theft, and images — were displayed on the website in Chinese and English. Items included clay Buddha heads, sculptures, and porcelain plates. At the bottom of each page, there is a form for submitting a tipoff.

    According to China’s Cultural Relics Protection Law, all artifacts buried underground belong to the state. Trafficking and illegal transactions related to cultural heritage items are crimes that can be punished by life imprisonment.

    But strict laws haven’t prevented around 2,000 such crimes each year since 2014, half of which involved the raiding of tombs or heritage sites. A staff member at the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said at a press conference in September that cultural relics-related crimes have been on the rise in recent years, and that traffickers are using more sophisticated methods.

    In September, police in central China’s Hunan province cracked down on five tomb-raiding gangs, arresting 34 suspects. The gangs, which came from 30 cities all over China, had been communicating via social media platforms.

    “The list of stolen items online is just the tip of the iceberg,” Wang Xuerong, a professor of cultural heritage protection at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology, told Sixth Tone. Due to the clandestine nature of the cultural relics market, Wang thinks there’s still a huge amount of information being hidden from authorities.

    In the past, most deals for cultural relics took place underground and only gradually became more overt as artifact auction companies and antique markets surfaced in the early 1990s. On the one hand, this made more information available, Wang added, but on the other, unregulated markets left relics under threat.

    As China is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO treaty prohibiting the import, export, and sale of cultural property, information on the new website will be shared with Interpol, the head of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage told The Beijing News.

    In mid-October, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the importance of protecting relics as an effort to boost the country’s cultural industry.

    Wang, the cultural heritage protection expert, said the website is just the beginning. Now, the government needs to make clear how the online tipoff scheme works and how it plans to maintain the site. “Otherwise,” he said, “the website will make no difference.”

    Editor: Colum Murphy.

    (Header image: An expert (middle) identifies stolen cultural relics in Beijing, Dec. 16, 2014. IC)