SUN WU KONG China's renegade patriot faces backlash
By Wu Zhong, China Editor
HONG KONG - The National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's
Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) last week opened their annual
sessions in Beijing, but debate on the sidelines was dominated by the mounting
fuss over a Chinese art dealer's sabotage of the auction of two bronze animal
heads looted from a Chinese imperial palace.
At the Christie's Paris auction on February 25, a mystery buyer successfully
won a US$40.4 million phone bid for the bronze rat and rabbit heads. But on
March 2, the bidder - Cai Mingchao, the boss of an auction house in the
southeastern city of Xiamen and a collection advisor to the National Treasures
Fund - made a public
appearance at a press conference in Beijing and proclaimed he would not pay.
"I shall not pay the money. I did the bidding just to stop the auction, and I
did it on behalf of the whole Chinese people," said Cai.
If Cai intended to draw public attention with the controversial ruse, then his
plan was a success. Stunning the world, his remarks immediately sparked
speculation on whether his sabotage of the auction had the backing of the
Chinese government. The next day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang
said Cai had acted without government approval, though he reiterated Beijing's
position that the bronze heads should be returned to China.
But the media could not miss the opportunity to continue grilling Chinese
officials attending the NPC and CPPCC annual sessions on the scandal. So far,
in their public remarks, officials have declined to comment directly on Cai's
actions, but have said that were opposed to public auctions of looted Chinese
relics and that the government discouraged any citizens from participating in
Last Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said without elaboration:
"China has the right to demand the return of looted relics."
This is not the first time that bronze animal heads looted from Yuanming Yuan,
the old Summer Palace of the Manchurian Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) have been
publicly auctioned. In April 2000, two of the 12 zodiac bronze animal heads -
the ox and monkey - were put on sale in Hong Kong. They were both successfully
bought by the Poly Group, a People's Liberation Army affiliated corporation
based in Beijing, for HK$7 million (then $900,000) and HK$7.4 million
At the time, critics questioned whether the bronze heads were worth such high
prices and said Poly's bids might raise the price for other heads from the same
collection. But a representative of Poly Group said the bronze heads were
invaluable "national treasures" and that they hoped their move could cause the
rest of the animal heads to surface for public sale. More of them did soon
appear at public auctions, and just a month after buying the the ox and monkey
heads, Poly bought the tiger head at a public auction in Hong Kong, this time
for HK$14 million. In 2007, Hong Kong tycoon Stanley Ho spent HK$69.1 million
to buy the horse head from Sotheby's before it went to public auction, he then
donated it to China.
Neither the Chinese government nor the general public made a fuss over these
auctions. But Beijing and the Chinese public were indignant over the Paris
sale. For one thing, the auction was like a slap in the face for China as the
looting of Yuanming Yuan was carried out by French and British forces during
the second Opium War in 1860. The Chinese people's anger at the sale was
heightened by the poor state of Sino-French relations.
Since French President Nicolas Sarkozy's meeting with the exiled Tibetan
spiritual leader the Dalai Lama last December, Sino-French ties have remained
luke warm, with Beijing taking a more hardline stance on what it sees as
foreign intervention in the Tibet issue. After Sarkozy said he planned to meet
the Dalai Lama, China announced on November 25 that as a protest, Premier Wen
Jiabao would cancel his plans to attend the 11th China-European Union (EU)
summit in Lyon on December 1 as France held the EU's rotating presidency. China
also postponed talks on finalizing a deal for 150 Airbus passenger planes, a
spokesman for the European aircraft maker said.
In January to February, Wen made a visit to several EU countries, except
France. While Beijing's official said this was down to Wen's busy schedule, the
premier made no attempt to gloss over the fact it was a protest against
Sarkozy's meeting with the Dalai Lama. "Looking at the map, during my
just-concluded [European] travels, I have indeed made a circle around France.
The reason why France was excluded from my visit is well known to the world,"
It was no surprise then that Beijing and the Chinese public, with their growing
nationalistic sentiments, strongly opposed the auction of looted Chinese relics
in Paris. Pierre Berge, the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's former
business partner and companion, who owns the rat and rabbit heads, added fuel
to the fire by saying he would return them to China in exchange for a free
Before the auction, Berge said, "I would be very happy to go myself and bring
these two Chinese heads to put them in the Summer Palace in Beijing. All they
have to do is to declare they are going to apply human rights, give the
Tibetans back their freedom and agree to accept the Dalai Lama on their
For Chinese people, the looting and burning of Yuanming Yuan is a shameful
chapter of Chinese history, and the 12 bronze animal heads would be better
classed as symbols of Chinese shame rather than "national treasures". For, as
many critics have pointed out, they are not so ancient when compared with other
Chinese bronze relicts; nor are they really fine pieces of Chinese art, as they
were in fact designed by Jesuit missionaries.
Before the auction, some cool-minded analysts said that Berge's provocative
remarks were merely a publicity stunt to boost the prices of the bronze heads.
Many arts critics said the two bronze heads were of little intrinsic value for
collection by anyone other than nationalistic Chinese.
This raised fears that competing Chinese nationals or overseas ethnic-Chinese
would push the price up, and some senior government officials had warned
Chinese bidders to avoid the Paris auction.
Song Xinchao, the director of the Museum Department under the State
Administration of Cultural Heritage, made a public appeal before the sale,
asking for Chinese to not participate, saying "showing no interest in it is the
best reaction". He also asked the media not to make more publicity for the
auction: "Making publicity will only help speculative [foreign businesspeople]
make profits from Chinese people's patriotic enthusiasm."
He also said the State Administration of Cultural Heritage's task is never to
"buy over" lost Chinese relics, but to seek every other possible means for
But the advice seems to have been ignored, and the high bid won by Cai was the
result of fierce competition. It is reasonable to assume that at least some of
Cai's under-bidders were wealthy Chinese businessmen who were prepared to
return the heads to China. Perhaps to his surprise, the bid has won Cai more
criticism than applause at home.
According to a survey on the website of Hong Kong-based TV station Phoenix,
which has an audience of mainly mainland Chinese residents, two out of three of
those interviewed did not support Cai's actions. There is now heated debate in
the Chinese media over the issue.
Harsh criticism in the Chinese media indicates that Cai really did not have the
backing of the government. Some people now have said his motivation was to ride
the wave of nationalism to gain publicity.
Calling Cai's stunt a "trouble-making patriotic move", Guangzhou-base New
Express News said it had opened the door to more "teasing threats" from Berge.
While some of Cai's supporters said he was right to "attack hooliganism with
hooliganism" and to never pay "ransom to pirates", his critics have said that
his stunt may further damage the outside world's trust in China. Toxic food
scares, bad quality products and business frauds exposed in recent years have
already damaged confidence in the country.
"[W]e are now living in a civilized age … our country's auction law stresses
legal responsibilities. We know lack of credit and morality will bring chaos to
our society. Similarly in the international community, some basic rules and
laws must be followed," a signed commentary on Xinhua News Agency's website
On the Internet, criticism of Cai is more harsh. "You said you did this on
behalf of the whole Chinese people? How could you ever say this? We did not
authorize you to act on our behalf," said one blogger. "You seem to want to
become a national hero. But what you have done shames our nation," said
The debate on Cai's sabotage of the Paris auction is still going on and has
extended into discussions on how China should better preserve and protect its
cultural heritage at home, as well as possible ways for the country to retrieve
its lost relics.
Despite the sensitivity of the debate, rationalism seems to be finally taking
hold, and there are now less emotive outbursts, such as calls to boycott French
goods. This is a hopeful sign that Chinese nationalism is maturing, and that
certainly would be progress.