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China Turns Into a Bull To Save Art

By Kevin PlattStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 1997



BEIJING

Hou Linshan's rise to riches and philanthropy made him a picturesque symbol of China's dynamic economy and changing society - until shortly before his execution.

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"Billionaire Hou" owned several mansions in central Shanxi Province, contributed generously to local charities and Communist Party officials, and ran a network of trading firms.

Mr. Hou's claim during his trial two years ago to have made a fortune through cross-border trade, matched by a sophisticated understanding of the global market, turned out to be true.

But his later march to the executioner's grounds was triggered by the nature of the commodities he traded: Hou was part of a growing circle of Chinese specializing in art crimes.

Hou's ring of thieves robbed ancient tombs and smuggled priceless relics out of China to supply international collectors.

"It took us 10 years to catch Hou's gang in Shanxi," says Ma Zishu, deputy head of the Beijing-based National Administration for Cultural Heritage.

Hou's gang used state-of-the-art equipment, including short-wave radios, directional blasting devices, guns, and getaway jeeps, to break into tombs with military precision and speedily evade capture, says Mr. Ma.

Shanxi, located in the "cradle of Chinese civilization" along the Yellow River, provided a wealth of imperial burial grounds for Hou to plunder.

For millennia, Chinese aristocrats have been buried with the finest scrolls, ceramic figurines, and religious icons that surrounded them in life.

But in the past 20 years, much of that legacy has been unearthed by thieves like Hou and secretly shipped out of the country via Hong Kong, says Ma.

"The police got their big break when an argument between Hou and other gang members over dividing the spoils from one robbery erupted into a shoot-out," he says.

Since his speedy trial, sentencing, and execution, Hou has become a different sort of model, a message to would-be imitators that capital punishment awaits cultural bandits.

China's state-run press says theft of ancient artifacts has proliferated since the early 1980s, when Beijing began reforming its economy and trading with the rest of the world.

In some cases, entire villages have mounted attacks on centuries-old tombs as a capitalist "gold fever" sweeps across the socialist nation.

"This type of crime was virtually unheard of when China was isolated" under the first three decades of communist rule, Ma says.

"China's reforms have given everyone, from entrepreneurs to criminals, the chance to integrate with the world market," he says.

And as China's exports expand, much of its "cultural patrimony" is being carried off into the stream of global commerce.

To close the floodgates, Beijing is clamping down on both Chinese suppliers and foreign buyers of illegally exported artworks.

Within China, "the stepped-up use of death sentences for robbers and smugglers of top-grade cultural relics is beginning to cut those crimes," says Ma.