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Render unto Caesar…

Filed on December 6, 2013

BRITISH PRIME Minister David Cameronís visit to China has evoked at least one reaction from the Middle Kingdom that is going to find resonance in many parts of the world. It is the demand that Britain return the Chinese national treasures looted by the British Army during the sacking of the Forbidden City following a peasant uprising in the 19th century.


The British Museum alone has 23,000 such trophies lifted after an eight-nation Western troop brutally put down the uprising. Thousands more plundered works of art lie scattered around the world. The British Museum has refused to hand over its ill-gotten gains, claiming they have now become part of world heritage and can be enjoyed by more people if they are in a centrally located place like London. If location is the criterion, then the UAE can lay one of the best claims to housing the looted collection.

China is not the only aggrieved party. During its dark days of colonisation by the British, India’s renowned wealth was pillaged by the East India Company, including the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond, that is now part of the British crown jewels. Cameron, facing a demand for its return when he toured India in February, rejected it, saying he did not believe in “returnism”. The same logic about the British Museum’s centrality has been used to refuse to return the Elgin Marbles, the Greek sculptures that were removed from Athens during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. During times of full-scale war the banditry has been even more fearsome. Napoleon is said to have been a role model for the Third Reich of Hitler that sieged Europe, the Soviet Red Army in its turn wrested away treasures from occupied Germany, Japanese troops ransacked East and Southeast Asia while Africa was despoiled by several armies during several wars.

But when wars died and peace was declared, no nation ought to claim monopoly on world treasures, especially when they happen to be looted. As Xie Chensheng, a Chinese cultural heritage preservation expert, pointed out, “Cultural wealth can be shared by the whole world, but not the ownership, just like the property rights on software.” Britain should think of initiating talks with other museums in major world cities to rotate such collections. Or else it should stop crying hoarse over the violation of copyrights and intellectual property rights.





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