On 23 February, Zuozhen Liu gave a presentation at the Boekmanfoundation in the serie 'Onderzoek in Zicht' on her thesis on the repatriation of cultural objects on the basis of several Chinese cases. For example, the bronze heads from Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace), which were looted by Anglo-French allied troops around 1860, were auctioned in 2008. Another case concerns the loss of the Dunhang manuscripts which were discovered by a monk in a cave in Dunhang in 1900, and sold to foreign explorers in 1907. These manuscripts are now held by several institutions worldwide. China has been faced with huge (legal) difficulties for years in efforts to repatriate these objects which are of great value of China’s history and identity, according to Liu. It has been especially difficult because the looting took place many years before any international legal agreements on this subject were developed and adopted. They do not apply retroactively. China has been trying to get its cultural objects back by buying them from traders. However, this method is criticized, as it would recognize and legalize war looting and repurchasing pushes up the price of the cultural objects unreasonably. Liu examines whether China could retrieve these objects based on international law, national and soft law. Subsequently, this research focuses on the question whether there is sufficient legal protection of cultural objects looted, stolen or illicitly exported before the adoption of the 1954 Hague Convention. Secondly, she focuses on the identification of the legitimate human interests and values of cultural identity contained in the conventions and soft-law instruments that protect cultural objects.
In her research, Liu addresses the issues which would come up if an international court were to hear the Chinese cases, including jurisdiction, the admissibility of the cases and state responsibility. If such cases are presented before a domestic court, an English court for example, the issues would concern, amongst other things, which law would be applicable (English and Chinese law) and whether a crime has been committed. Another interesting and significant discussion can be held about the political aspects of this sensitive subject, including the recognition of Chinese identity.
Chinese cultural objects would imply respect for Chinese culture, and would win back the trust between people of the countries involved. One of Liu’s conclusions is that there is no sufficient legal protection of cultural objects that were looted, stolen or illegally exported in the past. The (political) sensitivity of their repatriation implies recognition of and respect for the Chinese cultural identity. In handling repatriation cases, Liu suggests that it should be taken into account how cultural objects were obtained and what the objects mean to people’s cultural identity.
Zuozhen Liu will defend her thesis on April 14, 2015.