Inadequate funding and a dearth of public awareness have left China's rich cultural heritage sites exposed to thieves and looters.
Liu Mingwei, head of the supervision division of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH), said that thefts of artifacts involving criminal syndicates were on the rise.
"They are highly prepared and are not even scared of resorting to violence. It is very difficult to stop or catch them," Liu said.
The Ministry of Public Security announced Tuesday that police had apprehended 175 people with links to 10 organized gangs implicated in illegal excavations in Niuheliang, a Neolithic site in northeastern Liaoning Province.
Police recovered 1,168 artifacts worth more than 500 million yuan (80 million U.S. dollars), the biggest haul since 1949.
The gangs were highly organized, with each member given a particular responsibility, the police said.
These better equipped, professional criminal organizations have the advantage over cultural heritage site teams.
Some of the suspects in the Niuheliang case told police that poor security measures, such as an absence of security cameras, facilitated their crimes.
Despite government funding for security measures increasing from 70 million yuan a year in 2008 to 700 million in 2013, the protection of cultural heritage sites is stymied by a lack of manpower and out-of-date technology.
Across China, just 10,000 people are employed to supervise heritage sites, Liu said. This translates to, on average, one person being responsible for almost 100 sites.
From 2010 to 2013, SACH received reports of 437 thefts and illegal excavations. Of this number, 57 cases were at sites supervised by the central government, which are under the best care.
Since a revision to the Criminal Law in 2011 removed the death penalty on those convicted of tomb raiding, the law is no longer a deterrent, Liu said.
Also, more public education is needed. Antique collection is popular among the rich; soaring market demand means higher profits for thieves and tomb raiders.
In the Niuheliang case, one of the suspects, Liu, was an employee of a local museum. He was caught brokering deals between thieves and buyers, and reaping commissions of up to 40,000 yuan.
Liu told Xinhua that he had been influenced by popular TV shows that focused on the value of antiques rather than their cultural significance.