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Arguments between China & Taiwan over disputed artefacts

An exhibition of Chinese artefacts in Taiwan is opening as planned, but it is overshadowed by Taiwan’s unwillingness to reciprocate the loan for fear that artefacts will be seized by China because there is no law in place to give legal protection that they will not be. This is however, unlike some similar cases, as much a reflection of the nature of the tensions between China & Taiwan as it is on the relative risk of the exhibition taking place.

Daily Telegraph [1]

Taiwan and China at loggerheads over treasured artworks
The opening of a historic exhibition of Chinese cultural artefacts in Taiwan has been overshadowed by the refusal of Taiwanese authorities to allow its own collection to be displayed in China.
By Jonathan Liew
Published: 9:36AM BST 12 Oct 2009

The Palace Museum in Beijing has lent 37 pieces to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, for an exhibition of artefacts belonging to the 18th-century Chinese emperor Yongzheng, which opened this week.

However, the director of the Taipei museum said that it would not reciprocate, for fear that any works that it sent to China would be seized.

Chou Kung-Shin said that the museum’s collections would only be exhibited abroad in countries that could guarantee their return. “As long as there are no such legal protections in China, the museum will not consider loaning national treasures to that country,” she added.

Taiwan passed its own corresponding law in 1992, exempting exhibits from the Beijing and Shanghai museums from seizure or ownership disputes.

Since they split at the end of a civil war in 1949, the Communist government of China has always claimed that Taiwan is part of its territory, and considers itself the sole guardian of Chinese cultural heritage. Taiwan’s vast collection of Chinese artefacts has long been a bone of contention between the two countries.

The National Palace Museum in Taipei holds more than 655,000 such articles, most of which were removed from Beijing in the 1930s by the exiled Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, to prevent them falling into the hands of invading Japanese troops.

Taiwan has always maintained that the transfer was necessary in order to save them from destruction at the hands of Mao Zedong’s Communists.

The dispute threatens to embarrass China in the wake of last week’s lavish celebrations commemorating 60 years of Communist rule.

The exhibition, entitled Harmony and Integrity: the Yongzheng Emperor and his Times, is the first to be held jointly between the two museums, and was only agreed in July after months of negotiation.

Ms Chou became the first museum director to visit Beijing’s Forbidden City in 60 years, while the director of the Beijing Palace Museum arrived in Taipei on Monday to attend the exhibition. The 37 works lent by China have been insured for 1.42bn Taiwanese dollars (£27.7m).

The exhibition has been seen as a sign of a thaw between China and Taiwan, which is in large part attributable to Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou, who has attempted to improve relations with China during his 16 months in office.

However, the real test will be whether China can provide a legal guarantee to return any works it borrows from Taipei.

China has the stated goal of securing the return of artefacts removed from the country as a result of wars in the 19th and 20th century. According to Unesco there are over 1 million items of Chinese origin in foreign museums, of which the British Museum alone holds an estimated 23,000. Up to ten times that number are in the hands of private collectors.

In recent years the country has become increasingly determined in its pursuit of this end. In 2002 China set up a fund for rescuing lost cultural relics from overseas, with the aim of repatriating artworks held abroad. However, pressure on other countries to return artefacts has yielded few successes to date, and the fund has more frequently resorted to purchasing items at great cost.

Professor Michel Hockx of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London said the incident illustrated the precarious nature of the relationship between Taiwan and China, despite recent steps towards rapprochement.

“The two countries have a strong history of dispute and have come a long way to be at this stage,” he said.

“The very volatile relationship to date hasn’t provided evidence of an acceptance of Taiwan from China. The caution shown by the Taiwanese demonstrates that trust of the Chinese government is not at a stage where open trade can happen.”