Scandals, Cover-Ups Plague Forbidden City
Chinese officials embarrassed under public scrutiny
From an embarrassing theft by a lone burglar to an awkward attempt at
concealing a broken antique, Beijing’s 600-year-old Forbidden City has been
plagued with a slew of scandals recently, putting the nation’s most esteemed
cultural icon under a harsh public spotlight.
It all began with what
seemed like an isolated, but nevertheless shocking incident when a 27-year-old
out-of-towner, on the night of May 8, slipped into the heart of the Forbidden
City, known as the Palace Museum, despite the supposedly impenetrable alarm and
camera systems. He snatched jewelry boxes and purses worth millions of dollars,
climbed over a 33-foot-high wall, and escaped a security guard.
The museum’s embarrassed
government-appointed officials were put in a difficult position: they had to
explain to the Chinese public that the 1,600 antitheft alarms and 3,700
closed-circuit television cameras had apparently failed to prevent the
straightforward theft. Further, they had to explain that the stolen objects were
not even fully insured, since the museum had never believed it was possible for
a thief to break in.
Dissatisfied netizens and bloggers, followed by the
official press, responded by uncovering a string of other management blunders;
these were met with more temporizing.
Perhaps the most serious
allegations were sparked from a July 30 microblog post claiming that a precious Song Dynasty
porcelain plate broke into six pieces on July 4, when a laboratory researcher
crushed it while examining it with a device. Even though the Palace Museum
confirmed the news the next day, the Chinese public was outraged by how museum
officials had kept the news from the public for nearly a month.
the scrutiny the museum was under, it was no surprise when a China Youth Daily article dug up records of an illegal
auctioning of five pieces of the museum’s ancient calligraphy six years ago; yet
another allegation denied by museum officials.
While museums are
strictly prohibited from selling any of their collections under China’s cultural
protection laws, the Palace Museum got around it by saying that it had never
bought the calligraphy works because the funds used were not offered and approved by superior
departments, according to the Global Times, an English language tabloid under
the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, People’s Daily.
denial did little to save the museum from its image crisis; the Chinese business
magazine Caixin followed up with reports about the museum’s utter failure to
control pests, and its ticketing scams.
magazine said that termites initially
found feasting in parts of the palace’s nearly 1,000 buildings in 2006 were
rediscovered recently, prompting some experts to conclude that not only did the
museum’s five years of pest controls fail,
but the insects could eat the Forbidden City to the ground if they are not
Caixin also reported that the museum paid 100,000 yuan
(US$15,520) to a blackmailer to cover up a scandal in which security guards and tour guides were said to have embezzled
the museum’s entrance ticket income, an incident also earnestly denied by
Museum guards allowed visitors to enter the museum without
buying tickets, while tour guides would later collect the ticket money from the
visitors; they’d then split the lucre with the guards instead of turning it to
the Ministry of Finance.
The scam was said to be widespread, but it is unknown
how much money was embezzled, the magazine said, citing an
Museums in China function as units of the sprawling national
bureaucracy, Chen Youhong, an assistant professor of public management at
People’s University, told Caixin. Each
curator is answerable only to the government official above him or her, instead
of museum patrons or the general public.