China is becoming a superpower.  That, no one disputes.  But is it moving too fast towards that objective?  Does it already show, or feel, what it will be able to do when it moves front and center in the global picture?

This week, China made the bold move, quite unexpectedly, of requesting the British to return Chinese art taken during the opium wars.  

The opium wars of the 19th century were a scarring experience for China, when the British went to war to impose on China the acquisition of opium, which the Chinese were trying to ban due to the devastating effects it had on its society.  More pointedly  however, was the fact that the British were the only foreigners to rule the thousands year old country, a trauma many Chinese still relive through history books and tradition.

The request was put to Cameron on his last day visiting the Chinese capital.  

China believes that Britain holds priceless Chinese antiques artifacts stolen during the opium wars. The request was made by the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, headed by former vice-premier Zeng Peiyan, even as the two countries signed a 10 billion dollar trade agreement. 

Truth be told, Britain does hold almost 23,000 artifacts in the British Museum, taken during the quelling of the Boxer rebellion. 

The British had among other things, ransacked the Forbidden City, and destroyed the Summer Palace, also in the capital, around 1860.  The burning of the summer palace was even put to pen and paper, when a British officer present at the burning lamented how heartbroken he was to see a place of such beauty and magnificence destroyed. 

Many of China's artifacts however, were destroyed during Mao Tse Tung's 'cleansing' campaign during the cultural revolution.  Immense amounts of books, art, and other historical objects were ordered burned and pulverized during Mao's tenure.    It is maybe with a little disingenuity that the Chinese feel that Britain must make amends for its brutal repression of the Boxer rebellion by returning the items it looted.  

However, Britain does have reason to acquiesce to some of China's demands, if it wishes to be a meaningful trading partner.  Chinese people have a very long memory and expect old scores to be settled, no matter how old.  Whether or not a compromise is reached and some items returned is something that remains to be seen.    Another country that has long clamored for the return of artifacts looted or taken out of the country by British troops or individuals is Egypt, whose Tutankamen burial tomb held the few true priceless tomb artifacts every discovered in the valley, before it was taken to Britain. 

But be it as it may, most countries do hold other countries' art, taken during conflict or other situations, and it would complicate diplomatic relations not a little if everyone suddenly clamored for the return of their own.


Partial Source ; France 24/ 12.4.13


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