China to join UN heritage convention
China is preparing to join a United Nations convention on underwater cultural heritage protection to preserve hidden treasures that may be damaged by commercial ocean salvage.
Archaeologists are revising the nation's current laws and rules on underwater salvage to bring them into line with the convention as a first step toward eventually joining it, said Zhang Wei, head of the Underwater Archeological Centre at the National Museum of China.
As more and more treasure hunters make huge profits out of ancient sunken vessels, Chinese experts are asking other countries to join in the agreement as soon as possible.
"Because the convention is the only way that these underwater treasures can be saved," said He Xuzhong, an official with the State Bureau of Cultural Relics.
The convention, passed in November 2001, has very few members and is largely ineffective so far.
And treasure hunters have not slowed their activity in recent years, with the South China Sea region an especially popular destination.
As one of the most busiest international sea lanes in ancient times, the region is estimated to have more than 2,000 ancient boats resting on its ocean floor, according to statistics with China's Underwater Archaeology Centre.
In 1985, British treasure hunters were reported to have salvaged 250,000 piecs of Chinaware and other treasures from an ancient Chinese boat that was sunken in the region as far back as 1752.
In 1999, a treasure hunter salvaged at least 1 million pieces of Chinaware from another Chinese boat sunken in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), also in the South China Sea.
According to Beijing-based Global Times, the salvager reaped more than US$10 million from the two boats over two decades.
And last year, a US-based salvage operation took more than 10,000 pieces of Chinaware from the sea region and shipped all the prizes back to the United States.
At the beginning of this month, workers on a Vietnamese fishing boat placed 1,700 pieces of Chinaware up for sale at an auction, which was salvaged from an ancient Chinese boat several years ago from the same region.
Statistics with the International Council on Monuments and Sites show commercial salvage operations in the past 50 years have damaged the underwater relic site at different levels.
A researcher with China Underwater Archaeology Centre who requested anonymity explained that treasure hunters do not care about the sites and simply take whatever they think will draw a good price.
"But underwater archaeologists have to record everything they see in the water, and videotape the items or take pictures in order to show people the reality of the site," the researcher said.
"It is their duty to protect the sites. All these efforts add to the salvage cost, which is why illegal treasure hunters can salvage a couple of sunken boats in a decade while archaeologists spend much more time to explore one relic site," he said.
In some cases, treasure hunters have even deliberately broken a number of salvaged Chinaware pieces in order to raise the prices of the rest.
Illegal treasure hunters' hamhanded pillage efforts have caused huge losses to human kind's common interests in gleaning value from the ocean, a UN expert quoted by Beijing-based magazine Lifeweek said.
To quell illegal treasure hunters' activities, the UN convention would make commercial salvage or removing items from ancient sunken boats at underwater sites illegal.
Though it has no direct legal force yet, the UN expert noted that the convention can arouse the attention of the public and member countries toward protecting underwater cultural heritage.
China itself enacted a regulation on underwater archaeology in 1989.
"But the regulation is not consistent with the convention on a number of points, such as the issue of ownership of discovered treasures," said Zhang Wei, head of the Underwater Archaeology Centre at the National Museum of China, the country's only specialized organization in this field.
At present, Zhang and his fellows are engaged in revising the regulation.
"We hope the draft of the revised regulation can be completed by the end of this year," Zhang said.
As to when China will likely join the convention formally, both Zhang and He Xuzhong with the State Bureau of Cultural Relics declined to make predictions.
But both said more countries should join the convention soon.
"Stopping treasure hunters' random looting is not only the duty of Chinese, but the duty of the world. Countries should join hands to protect civilization together," Zhang said.