Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tibet, the Olympics and the Chinese Request for Import Restrictions

Chinese repression of Tibetan culture. Ethnic Tibetans burning Han Chinese businesses because they view Chinese immigrants as colonizers. Political protests against the Olympic torch in Paris and San Francisco. What does all this have to do with cultural property? Well, there has been much speculation that the State Department plans to announce long delayed import restrictions on Chinese cultural artifacts-- including those from Tibet in time for the Olympics. Will news of Chinese repression delay those plans again lest the State Department be seen to be "rewarding China" so soon after harshly repressing dissent? Or, will the restrictions still be announced, perhaps to soften the supposed "blow" of other diplomatic protests against the Chinese action? We should know soon.

What is amazing is that the archaeological community seems to be completely oblivious to Chinese repression of Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama himself has recognized that collectors have helped preserve Tibetan cultural artifacts from destruction, particularly in the aftermath of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the destruction of many of its monasteries. Yet, at the 2005 CPAC hearing on Chinese import restrictions, members of the archaeological community supported tight Chinese government control over Tibetan artifacts. Why did anti-collector ideology win out even in this circumstance? Was that position based on principle or the fear that crossing the Chinese might limit the opportunities for American archaeologists excavating in China?

China is a great nation, and it has come a long way since President Nixon's visit in 1972, but it still has much to learn about human rights including religious and personal freedoms. Kowtowing to the Chinese Government on the issue of control of virtually all cultural artifacts from China-- including those from Tibet-- will send nothing but a wrong message.

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