Beijing’s forbidden city is being plundered

Officials have even been accused of trying to open a private club

Theft in a forbidden place

David Silverman/Getty Images

China’s Forbidden City may be under siege for the first time since 1860, when Anglo-French soldiers occupied it during the Second Opium War. This time, though, the culprits aren’t foreign invaders, but local ones, and even employees of the attraction itself. Recent troubles began for the ancient Beijing palace turned tourist attraction (its 980 palatial structures lure in 80,000 tourists a day) in May, when a 28-year-old migrant worker broke into one of its exhibit halls and carried away “gold and jewel encrusted boxes” valued at $1.5 million. According to reports, the thief escaped in true Indiana Jones fashion, “breaching a vaunted fortress designed to protect the long-ago emperors of China from barbarian invaders.” However, he forgot to wipe his fingerprints off one of the display cases and chose to frequent a nearby Internet café immediately after the heist, where he logged on to a computer under his real name. Suffice it to say, both loot and looter were quickly recovered.

But not all Forbidden City swindlers are so inept. Amid a string of ill-conceived burglaries and embarrassing accidents (in July, a palace researcher broke a 1,000-year-old porcelain dish), it seems the most serious finger-pointing has been aimed at Forbidden City employees themselves. Or as Chen Bingcai, a former state administration official, told the Guardian, “The [Forbidden City] museum is openly taking money from visitors without putting it through the books.” And Chen’s allegation—first made on one of many microblogs credited with publicizing palace scandals—isn’t exactly unfounded. Palace staff members have since been caught on camera pocketing nine-dollar admission fares.

Still, that’s an arguably small offence, in contrast to a slew of others. Of late, palace employees have confessed to misplacing over 100 ancient books, not to mention submerging an antique wooden screen in water during a botched restoration attempt. Most egregious though, especially to the Communist sensibility, was the online accusation made by television host Rui Chenggang that Forbidden City officials were in the process of opening an exclusive palace club for the upper crust of Chinese society—with membership fees beginning at $150,000.

Many Chinese are disheartened by the tarnished reputation of their country’s most visited historical masterpiece. One man in particular, a historian named Jia Yinghua, would like to see more accountability and less nepotism within the palace walls. “It’s just like in the time of the emperors,” he explained to the Los Angeles Times. “You inherit your job from your parents. The Forbidden City needs a modern management, an outside board of directors. It needs transparency.”

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