Topic: The return of Chinese cultural relics taken from the First Opium War to the end of Japanese occupation (1840-1945)

Presenter: Sarah Zhong - PhD Candidate, TC Beirne School of Law

A large number of Chinese cultural relics were taken out of the country during both times of war and peace, and particularly during the period beginning with the First Opium War to the end of the Japanese Occupation (1840-1949). China has insisted on asserting its interest over cultural relics removed during this period. In the auction case of two Chinese bronze statues in 2008, the Chinese government stated that “China did not acknowledge what it called the illegal possession of the two sculptures and would continue to seek the return by all means in accordance with relevant international conventions and Chinese laws”[1].

When recovering removed cultural relics, the first question China needs to deal with is whether the removals were illegal. This thesis first examines both Chinese law and international law to answer the question of legality. Bases on the analysis of these legal regimes, this thesis further argues that that China’s consistent legal protection of its cultural relics from the early fourteenth century can justifies China’s assertion of its continued interest, especially the cultural interest, over removed cultural relics and for their return. Furthermore, one basic idea running through the development of cultural heritage law and international law is respecting and protecting original states’ interests over their cultural relics.

Bases on a wide range of returning cases, this thesis further concludes that a new customary international law is emerging and likely to come into existence in the future, which is original states’ interests over their cultural relics should be first realized. In other words, original states should have a determinative choice as to whether and how their cultural relics could be returned. 

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