All The Rage over a Rat and a Rabbit

By Liu Peng
Published: 2009-03-04

The controversy over the auction of two looted bronze sculptures originating from China by Paris Christie's has reached a climax this week, when the secret bidder unveiled himself and refused to pay in the name of patriotism.

Cai Mingchao - a seasoned art buyer and advisor to China's National Treasures Fund that was dedicated to retrieving Chinese relics from abroad - told a news conference in Beijing on March 2 that no payment should be made to bring home the sculptures, which he said were rightfully China's.

"I believe any Chinese would have stood up for this cause... I am just answering to my civic responsibility," he said in a statement, referring to his decision to bid for the artifacts and later refuse payment.

The two bronze sculptures, a rat and a rabbit head looted by British and French allied forces from the Qing Dynasty's Old Summer Palace (Yuan Mingyuan) in Beijing in 1860, were won for EUR15,745,000 (nearly $25,500,000 dollars) each by a telephone bid in last week's auction.

Prior to the auction on February 25, the Chinese government had publicly denounced it, saying it broke international conventions, seriously infringed on the cultural rights of Chinese, and was insensitive to national sentiment. In early February, a group of Chinese lawyers had also tried to block the auction via legal channels but failed.

Since then, the controversy had gripped the nation, with related news making headlines regularly over the past weeks, and discussions frequently being held on television talk shows and in online forums. The latest statement by Cai further fanned public debate.

Yan Changhai, a senior media commenter who contributed to the EO On-line, criticized Cai for breaching his pledge under the banner of patriotism. He feared that Cai's personal conduct would dent the credibility of Chinese as a whole.

Such criticism, however, was few and far between. Cai's action was mainly welcomed and even celebrated at home -- an on-line survey by Sina, China's biggest portal, revealed that an overwhelmingly majority of respondents were supportive of him.

As of 4pm (Beijing Time) on March 3, some 420,000 netizens had participated in the survey, and 75.2% of the respondents said Cai had done the right thing, while only 16.7% disapproved.

The poll also explored the motive and impact of Cai's act, with 73.5% of the respondents saying they regarded his action as one that safeguarded China's national interests, and that the French ought to be taught a lesson; while 13.9% said they believed that he had damaged the image of Chinese businesspeople abroad.

Chinese officials too had made their stand known. Two days after the auction concluded, China's State Administration of Culture Heritage (SACH) ordered enforcement at all levels to tighten scrutiny on Christie's activities in China, according to a circular posted on SACH's website.

The circular ordered checks on all cultural relics that Christie's and its trustees sought to import into or export out of China.