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.
"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.
To constrict the market for stolen Chinese artifacts beyond its borders, Beijing recently joined an international treaty that allows members to reclaim stolen or smuggled relics through one another's courts.
Although the Unidroit Convention will allow Beijing to pursue only works that have left the country as of this year, China is seeking other means to recover relics that were illegally acquired earlier.
China now bans the export of relics pre-dating 1795, yet some of the most prestigious museums from Paris to London to New York exhibit Chinese works that date back as far as the 3,500-year-old Shang Dynasty.
"Beginning with the Opium War with Britain in the 1840s, invading foreign armies have pillaged China's cultural treasures," says a university art lecturer in Beijing who requested anonymity.
"Explorers and archaeologists from Britain, France, Japan, and Russia took advantage of China's political chaos to steal or buy very cheaply countless artworks," he adds.
Julie Zhou, curator at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, says pieces of China's cultural past have been snatched by figures like Aurel Stein, a Briton who nearly a century ago carried off a vast treasure trove.
"Stein took Buddhist sutras from the Dunhuang grottoes [a holy site along the ancient Silk Road in western China], and later gave them to the British Museum," says Ms. Zhou.
"That was only one of countless similar cases, and helps explain why Chinese artifacts are spread all over the world," she adds.
Ma says Egypt and India have begun exploring potential avenues to reclaim cultural treasures lost during war or colonialism and adds that China is closely following those moves.
"Some colonial armies that carried off Chinese cultural relics later mounted the works in public museums as a symbol of national glory," says Ma. "But such thefts are acts of barbarism."
As China's last imperial dynasty crumbled during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and the US all competed for spheres of influence. Traders from each power began dealing in imperial artifacts, sometimes paying peasants or clergy "a pittance for an irreplaceable treasure," says Ma.
The Beijing lecturer says the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, a rough Chinese Buddhist equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, is one of the many sites that have been ravaged by foreign and local scavengers.
"Many stone Buddhist figures, which date back to the 4th century, are now only torsos, and their heads have been smuggled out of the country," he says.
"It's hard to tell whether the greater crime is the theft of part of the sculpture or its destruction through decapitation," he adds.
"Our first duty is to protect what is left of China's cultural legacy," says Ma. "Our next duty is to try to recover the most important pieces that have been pillaged from the past."