In the area of modern day Shouxian County in the city of Huainan, Anhui Province once stood the ancient capital of the Chu state in the late Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). The county is often referred to as an underground museum for the wealth of ancient artifacts hidden in its soil.
Shen Jun, head of the Criminal Investigation Brigade of Shouxian County Public Security Bureau (PSB), told NewsChina that grave looters stand to make huge profits with a relatively low risk of serving jail time. “Law enforcement has recently stepped-up efforts to fight relic-related crime, but it’s still pervasive,” he said.
In 2011, the Amendment to the Chinese Criminal Law abolished capital punishment for tomb robbery offenses. Since then, legal scholars have advocated more severe punishments.
Sun Hua, a professor at the School of Archeology and Museology of Peking University, argued that the 2011 change in law correlates with the surge in tomb robbery cases across the country.
Most data on tomb robbery comes from law enforcement agencies and the NCHA. However, many cases go unreported. For example, while Huainan’s Wuwangdun Tomb, the burial site of Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) founder Wu Wang, was robbed in 2015, the crime was only brought to light in 2018 when a suspect in another tomb robbery case in Dingzhou, Hebei Province told police officers about it. “Crackdowns always lag behind the crime wave,” Huang Shengzhong, head of the Criminal Police Detachment of Huainan PSB, told NewsChina. “You can’t file and investigate a case before it happens.”
In early 2019, police officers busted gangs that had excavated Taosi North Cemetery in Shanxi Province, which has tombs dating as far back as the late Western Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 BCE). During their investigation, police learned that some of the tombs had already been raided in 2013. Taosi North Cemetery was only designated a registered historic area after the latest robbery was discovered.
Han Zhihui, head of the Linfen Investigation Center of Cultural Relic Crimes under the Shanxi Provincial Public Security Department, told our reporter that many ancient tombs were not in designated protected areas when they were robbed. “As long as a looted tomb goes undiscovered, it is difficult to bring the criminals to justice,” he said.
Tomb robbers stay on the move, making it difficult for police to track them. Huang told our reporter that Huainan PSB set up a database of people from areas at high risk of tomb robbery who have since moved to cities. In Shanghai, police launched an information-sharing platform with authorities in key provinces and cities to keep tabs on those involved in the cultural relics trade.
More recently, the Ministry of Public Security and the NCHA established a center to combat tomb robbery to provide information and technical support to police officers investigating antiquities crimes.
Multiple jurisdictions pose a challenge for law enforcement. Because suspects usually cross regional borders to fence their loot, local police where the crime occurred often find their hands are tied.
Authorities in Linfen, Shanxi Province working on a tomb robbery case found the looters had sold off the artifacts, which exchanged hands numerous times across multiple borders. Prosecutors said that since the crimes and transactions did not occur in the province, local authorities could not pursue the case.
As fighting such crime requires special skills and knowledge of forensic technologies, lack of expertise is a major challenge for local authorities.
Han Zhihui of the Linfen Investigation Center has organized several training programs for police working in cultural relic crime. He told NewsChina that officers must have a deep understanding of the history, culture and heritage involved to effectively build cases.
A recent job vacancy at the cultural relic crime unit of the Ministry of Public Security required applicants to have a background in archeology, cultural heritage or museology. After years of battling grave robbery, Shanxi Province started a human resources database of specialists in cultural relic law enforcement. “Professionals have to be trained on the ground,” Huang said.
However, law enforcement nationwide is under mounting pressure as robbers become increasingly professional. So far, only Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, home to the Terracotta Warriors, one of China’s most famous tourist attractions, has established an institute dedicated to combating cultural relic crimes.
Huang told our reporter that to address the personnel shortfalls, Huainan police set up a command center where police officers from several departments cooperate on tomb robbery cases.
Shen Jun of Shouxian County PSB in Huainan told our reporter that most local law enforcement agencies lack the technical reconnaissance and online security capabilities to conduct effective investigations. “We have to seek help from municipal and provincial bureaus. Clearing up a cultural relic crime is usually a lengthy marathon.”
In most cases, multiple police task forces are dispatched to investigate and track suspects, which can drain local coffers.
While the central government has allocated funding, most flows to provinces rich in cultural relics. “Anhui Province was given no budget at all. There are always funding shortages,” he said.
Shen told our reporter that local authorities cannot protect ancient sites without help. For example, Shouxian County has more than 160 registered historic sites and more than 80 ancient tombs but only 15 employees at the local cultural and tourism bureau charged with overseeing them. He suggested hiring more professionals to protect important tomb sites.
Wang Yunxia, director of the Institute of Cultural Heritage Law at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, said that a lack of dedicated task forces is behind the overall weak law enforcement in tomb robbery cases. She said that professional and specialized cultural relic teams should not only be set up but also granted extensive administrative authority.