How China and America Can Protect the World's Antiquities

Cracking Down on Illegal Trade

A security guard stands at the Panjiayuan flea market in Beijing, January 2013. Reuters

In 1971, a ping-pong match between the U.S. and Chinese national teams helped open relations between the two countries. Since then, people-to-people diplomacy has been a bright spot in otherwise tense interactions. But civil society engagement has become increasingly challenging. The Chinese government’s 2016 law on the management of foreign NGOs restricts many long-standing partnerships that the government now finds politically threatening, such as those that focus on the legal and political systems. Cooperation between the United States and China continues in less politically sensitive arenas, such as emerging global environmental and public health threats, and there are more opportunities here to be seized. When officials from both countries sit down later this week at the first round of the Social and People-to-People Exchange Dialogue—established by U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at their Mar-a-Lago summit in April—they should look to another important and time-sensitive global challenge: combating the destruction of cultural heritage sites and the looting and trafficking of illegal antiquities.  

Throughout much of the war-torn Middle East and other conflict-ridden areas, the treasured remains of ancient civilizations are under threat. In Afghanistan, the Taliban destroyed two fourth- and fifth-century Buddha carvings at Bamiyan; Islamist extremists burned priceless thirteenth-century manuscripts in Timbuktu; and, more recently, the Islamic State (ISIS) devastated the ancient ruins of Palmyra as well as numerous other important historic sites. Alongside the destruction has been massive looting of artifacts from tombs and museums. Such acts erase cultural identity and can thereby contribute to political instability. “Cultural cleansing is a tactic of war, used to destabilize populations and weaken social defenses,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has stated. “The loss of sacred places, libraries, museums and other irreplaceable historic monuments contributes to people in war-torn countries being vulnerable to the appeal of violence and extremism.” Even worse, the looting and illegal trafficking of antiquities serves as a source of funds for further atrocities. According to one report, ISIS is earning millions of dollars

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