British Museum thefts: Chinese state newspaper calls for the return of cultural relics


A state-run Chinese newspaper has demanded that the British Museum “returns all Chinese cultural relics acquired through improper channels to China free of charge” following the theft controversy at the London-based institution.

In an comment piece published 28 August, The Global Times says that the British government should “cooperate in legal and other procedures to facilitate the [restitution] 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 Global Times is owned by the ruling Communist party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily.

“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’,” adds the editorial. The call for objects to be returned to China comes as Nigeria and Greece double down on their restitution demands.

The commentary also points to a broader political agenda, developing a narrative around the symbolic fall of the British Museum and what this means for the UK’s reputation globally. “Britain’s stubborn and evasive behaviour 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.”

The editorial adds: “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 British Museum houses around 23,000 Chinese objects, including items from the Tang, Shang and Zhou dynasties. Peter Higgs, a senior curator of Greek and Roman art who was employed at the British Museum for 30 years, was identified in UK press reports as allegedly responsible for stealing priceless artefacts from the museum’s collection. Higgs’s family has denied the allegations against him.

The editorial also raises doubts as to how efficiently investigations into the thefts are proceeding. “People have questioned why the British police and the museum have delayed releasing photos and detailed descriptions of the stolen artefacts. 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,” says The Global Times. A spokesperson for the British Museum told The Art Newspaper last week: “We won’t be commenting on any details of the thefts while they’re subject to a police investigation.”

The editorial also addresses the fact that the 1963 British Museum Act currently prohibits the restitution of artefacts including the Parthenon Marbles. “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 artefacts because it cannot get [them] 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 fulfil international responsibility,” says The Global Times.

The thefts issue is meanwhile a hot topic on Chinese social media. According to the BBC, the hashtag “The British Museum please return Chinese antiquities” topped social media platform Weibo’s search chart having been viewed more than half a billion times.


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