In the two articles we reproduce below – the first an editorial followed by a news item – the influential Chinese newspaper Global Times responds to the recent news that some 2,000 artifacts have been found to be missing, believed stolen, from the British Museum, to demand the return of treasures, artifacts and cultural icons to China and other countries that were once the victims of colonial pillage by British imperialism. The paper estimates that the museum holds 23,000 cultural relics from China.
In its editorial, Global Times states: “We formally request the British Museum to return all Chinese cultural relics acquired through improper channels,” adding, “We also support the claims for the restitution of cultural relics made by other countries that have been looted by Britain, such as India, Nigeria and South Africa. We urge the British government to cooperate in the legal and other procedures to facilitate the process, which will be a test and verification of Britain’s sincerity in clearing the colonial stain and making amends for its historical sins.”
According to Global Times:
“The vast majority of the British Museum’s huge collection of up to 8 million items came from countries other than the UK, and a significant portion of it was acquired through improper channels, even dirty and sinful means. As a result, the British Museum has earned the name of the world’s largest ‘receiver of stolen goods’.”
Faced with growing demands over the years for the return of looted items by countries from Greece to Nigeria, the British Museum and the British government have fallen back on the frankly racist argument that the countries concerned are, unlike apparently the UK, incapable of taking care of their own property. The revelation of mass theft from the museum’s collections has blown that argument, such as it was, out of the water, and Global Times notes:
“The huge loopholes in the management and security of cultural objects in the British Museum exposed by this scandal have led to the collapse of a long-standing and widely circulated claim that ‘foreign cultural objects are better protected in the British Museum.'”
The editorial notes: “The UK, which has a bloody, ugly, and shameful colonial history, has always had a strong sense of moral superiority over others… We really do not know where their sense of moral superiority comes from.”
It also refers to Greece’s long-running campaign for the return of the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’:
“Recently, Greece once again called for the return of sculptures taken from the Parthenon Temple by Britain in the past, only to be accused by British politicians of ‘blatant opportunism.’ This once again reveals the ‘traditions’ of imperialism and colonialism.”
In one of several news items recently carried by Global Times on this issue, the paper points out that: “It is estimated that 10 million artifacts were stolen from China from the first Opium War (1840-42) to the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).”
It also cites Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, on his country’s demand for the return of the Benin Bronzes, and Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former minister of state for antiquities affairs, on his country’s campaign for the return of the Rosetta Stone.
And it notes comments made to the Guardian newspaper by Bell Ribeiro-Addy, the left Labour MP for Streatham in south London, that: “What makes it more awful is that they’ve been so lax about the [suspected] theft of other people’s items that they haven’t even bothered to assess what it is that they have.”
British Museum must return Chinese cultural relics for free
Global Times, 28 August 2023
As a Chinese media, we formally request the British Museum to return all Chinese cultural relics acquired through improper channels to China free of charge, and to refrain from adopting a resistant, protracted and perfunctory attitude. First of all, a public commitment should be made to the world for the return of the relics and this long overdue work should begin as soon as possible. We also support the claims for the restitution of cultural relics made by other countries that have been looted by Britain, such as India, Nigeria and South Africa. We urge the British government to cooperate in the legal and other procedures to facilitate the process, which will be a test and verification of Britain’s sincerity in clearing the colonial stain and making amends for its historical sins.
The recent revelation that some 2,000 artifacts from the British Museum’s collection inexplicably went missing has shocked not only the UK, but also all other countries that have collections in the British Museum. The huge number of missing artifacts, the long duration of the case, and the seriousness of the suspected internal thief have made it impossible to connect it with the British Museum, one of the largest museums in the world. People have questioned why the British police and the museum have delayed releasing photos and detailed descriptions of the stolen artifacts. The failure to release photos may indicate that the British Museum still has not been able to find out exactly how much of its vast collection has been lost, probably more than 2,000 pieces.
The vast majority of the British Museum’s huge collection of up to 8 million items came from countries other than the UK, and a significant portion of it was acquired through improper channels, even dirty and sinful means. As a result, the British Museum has earned the name of the world’s largest “receiver of stolen goods” which exhibits “stolen cultural property.” In other words, what the British Museum fails to take good care of, and what it loses and breaks, is in fact mainly cultural property belonging to other countries, so how can this not be heartbreaking.
The huge loopholes in the management and security of cultural objects in the British Museum exposed by this scandal have led to the collapse of a long-standing and widely circulated claim that “foreign cultural objects are better protected in the British Museum.” This statement has been accepted by some people in the victimized countries, indirectly weakening the motivation and determination to recover the artifacts from the British Museum. We doubt very much that it is an excuse of cultural colonization and brainwashing of developing countries.
In the British Museum, there are about 23,000 pieces of cultural relics from China. Among them, about 2,000 pieces are on display for a long term, including the Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies from the Tang Dynasty, Liao tri-colored luohan statues, ritual bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, stone buddhist sutra scrolls of the Wei and Jin dynasties, and other extremely valuable national treasures. It’s difficult to trace how exactly China lost them to the British Museum, but most Chinese collections were certainly looted or stolen by Britain when it created and later took advantage of China’s crisis, or even directly robbed China. As long as Britain cannot prove which collection was acquired legally and honestly, then the mother country of these collections has the right to seek their repatriation.
The UK, which has a bloody, ugly, and shameful colonial history, has always had a strong sense of moral superiority over others, often standing on the moral high ground to dictate to and even interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. We really do not know where their sense of moral superiority comes from. The United Kingdom, before pointing its finger at others, should first pay back its own historical debts and take the initiative to contact and discuss with the countries that have suffered from its colonial infringement on how to return the historical loot as soon as possible. It should not wait for others to come to its doorsteps, and then use all sorts of excuses, thus leaving the world with a very unflattering impression once again.
Over the years, the British Museum has refused to return the cultural relics mainly on the grounds and basis of the British Museum Act, which was amended by the British Parliament in 1963 and basically prohibits the museum from returning any of its collections. This is equivalent to the UK installing a threshold on its own door and then telling the owner of the relics that it cannot return the artifacts because it cannot get out of the door. It is obviously very hypocritical and ridiculous to use a law set by oneself as an excuse for refusing to obey international morality and fulfill international responsibility. The British Museum is a microcosm of the history of British colonial expansion. Even if the UK has wiped the fingerprints of the looters on these artifacts, it cannot erase the true ownership of these cultural properties.
Some say that the disappearance of 2,000 cultural relics from the British Museum could be the “largest” theft event to date. In our view, the questionable origins of the millions of artifacts in the British Museum raise further concerns about what constitutes the “largest” theft. Recently, Greece once again called for the return of sculptures taken from the Parthenon Temple by Britain in the past, only to be accused by British politicians of “blatant opportunism.” This once again reveals the “traditions” of imperialism and colonialism. However, Britain’s stubborn and evasive behavior comes at the expense of the image and reputation of the British Museum and even the entire country. Let us see how long Britain can hold out before facing this issue.
Calls to the British Museum to stop ‘21st century imperialism’ surge worldwide
Global Times, 28 August 2023
A recent incident in which more than 2,000 artifacts were stolen from the world’s prestigious public cultural facility, the British Museum in the UK, has become a cultural industry scandal that puts Western museums into a trust crisis while triggering emerging voices from countries such as China and Egypt, who are calling for the return of looted relics still held by the UK museum.
Requesting the British Museum to return Chinese relics plundered by the UK has now become a trending topic with more than 210 million views on China’s Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo. Since Friday, Chinese netizens’ voices have been surging as they demand the UK museum return relics that belong to China. Meanwhile, Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, has announced his resignation, while also noting the museum did not response to a warning of possible theft in 2021.
Cultural expert Yao Yu told the Global Times that the UK museum’s “sluggish management and lack of responsibility for artifacts” are major reasons why China has growing petitions for the repatriation of relics.
“Maybe the museum’s ignorance is because it has very few relics that actually belong to the UK,” posted one netizen on Sina Weibo.
Currently, the museum has a total of 23,000 Chinese relics, while about 2,000 Chinese relics are on long-term display. The Chinese objects, spanning from the Neolithic age to the present, include paintings, prints, jade and ceramics.
In 1860, the Second Opium War (1856-60) culminated in British and French troops sacking the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, in Beijing. The looted art and cultural artifacts subsequently made their way to museums and private collections across Europe.
“The loss of cultural relics is a conscious or unconscious plunder by the colonial powers in colonial history,” Huo Zhengxin, a professor of law at the China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times.
It is estimated that 10 million artifacts were stolen from China from the first Opium War (1840-42) to the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-45). For example, some of China’s oldest surviving paintings on silk and inscribed bronze ritual vessels are in the UK museum’s collection.
Considering the fact that the British Museum has no list of the items lost, relic repatriation expert Wang Zhongjie told the Global Times that it is “hard to believe that no Chinese relics were lost in the stolen batch.”
“And, I have to say those relics that are lost may very likely be lost forever and cannot be replaced,” Wang warned.
The voices calling for the British Museum to return looted relics have become an international consensus in other countries like Nigeria, Greece and Egypt as well.
While Greece has been calling for the museum to return its marble sculpture that belongs to the Parthenon Temple, Abba Isa Tijani, the director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, has also questioned whether or not keeping relics in Western museums are the safest for them.
During an interview with UK’s Sky News, Abba Isa Tijani said that Western countries and museums have been telling the public that it is unsafe to keep Benin’s bronze artifacts in Nigeria, but they themselves have been involved in theft, which is “truly shocking.”
“This is the 21st century, we need to make museums stop buying looted, stolen, or otherwise illegal artifacts,” Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former minister of state for antiquities affairs, told the Global Times. He has been working on condemning the British Museum and asking it return Egypt’s Rosetta Stone for years.
The cries have not just come from international society, voices in the UK have also emerged to condemn the British Museum.
Ribeiro-Addy, UK’s Labour MP for Streatham, has publicly condemned the “lax” response of the museum.
“What makes it more awful is that they’ve been so lax about the [suspected] theft of other people’s items that they haven’t even bothered to assess what it is that they have… to know exactly what’s been stolen,” Ribeiro-Addy told the Guardian.
“I hope that other countries that have been colonized and plundered by the British will follow up and expose the British attitude towards colonial misdeeds,” said one Sina Weibo user.