China on Thursday sentenced the head of the country's most prolific tomb raiding gang to death with a two-year reprieve, a rare severe punishment which analysts hope will serve as a warning to the unbridled tomb raiding industry in China.
Ringleader Yao Yuzhong, from Chifeng in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, was found guilty of several offenses including tomb raiding, looting and selling stolen antiquities. His gang was highly organized, and would source fund, explore, loot and trade relics, said the Chaoyang City Intermediate People's Court of Northeast China's Liaoning Province on Thursday.
Altogether, 22 gang members received prison terms of varying lengths. Three gang members received life sentences.
Under China's Criminal Law, tomb raiders can be sentenced up to over 10 years' imprisonment or to a life sentence for the most serious violations.
Among 32 artifacts retrieved by police, 16 were under grade-one State cultural protection. Another 77 relics still in the possession of the gang members were ordered returned.
The gang's arrest was one of the biggest busts of its kind supervised by the Ministry of Public Security since 1949. It was among 12 organized gangs implicated in illegal excavations at Niuheliang, a Neolithic site in northeastern Liaoning. Police apprehended 225 people and retrieved a total of 2,063 artifacts, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
This heavy punishment can serve as a deterrent to the unrestrained tomb raiding industry in China, which has grown into a mature business in the underground market, Ni Fangliu, a Nanjing-based expert on archeology and the history of tomb raiding, told the Global Times on Thursday.
Busier than archaeologists
Observers noted that more excavations may have been made by tomb raiders than official archaeologists in China, and that the antiquities recovered are usually sold either overseas for a better price or purchased by some private or even public museums.
Citing anonymous insiders, the Legal Weekly reported in 2010 that the number of tomb raiders in China may have reached 100,000 in six provinces, including Hebei, Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hunan and Gansu.
Tomb raiders are usually familiar with history to help them better locate the tombs, such as historical rituals or traditional feng shui, as emperors' tombs usually sit near mountains and rivers. Different dynasties had different funeral practices, Ni said.
"Tomb raiding gangs sometimes make better use of new technologies, such as directional explosion excavating equipment. They don't care that the ancient tombs are damaged, all they want are the relics to make a profit," Liu Yang, a Beijing-based lawyer specializing in cultural relics, told the Global Times.
Liu, who has been working to retrieve Chinese relics overseas, estimated that a large proportion of the millions of relics in foreign countries could have originated from tomb raiding.
Some 100,000 individual relics could be sent annually to distribution centers in the Chinese mainland before being sent to Hong Kong and Taiwan before they then reach the UK as the axis of the international hub for relic smuggling, the Legal Weekly reported.
"Museums in China are also willing to pay for the raided relics. They can't track the origin after they've changed hands dozens of times, and they also stimulate the development and prosperity of tomb raiding," Ni said.
Apart from tomb raiding, Chinese cultural relics are threatened by urbanization efforts, according to Xu Changqing, head of the institute of cultural relics and archaeology of Jiangxi Province, who called for a balanced relationship between infrastructure construction and cultural relic excavation and protection.
"Some officials think they can protect the relics after economic development, after building high-rises, but they actually begin at the wrong end, because the heritage of thousands of years can be damaged in one day," Xu told the Global Times, explaining that exploration, assessment and investigation of relic resources are sometimes deemed as a delaying factor in urban development.