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Real estate development threatens ancient tombs

Updated: 2013-10-18 09:46
By Zhao Xu ( China Daily)

China's frenzied real estate development poses a grave threat to a large number of ancient tombs, according to Ni Fangliu, a historian in the field of tombs and grave objects.

"Thanks to China's 5,000-year history and its equally long burial tradition, the land is literally peppered with ancient graves. However, the scale of real-estate development today means that a sizable number of them are on sites earmarked for construction projects," he said.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the central government has promulgated laws that require archeological assessment of areas suspected of containing tombs before construction projects can proceed.

Moreover, if an ancient site is unearthed, the developer must report to the local government as soon as the discovery is made. However, there's a huge gap between theory and practice.

"While almost all government projects, especially major infrastructure projects, have been carried out in accordance with the rules, very few private developers have shown respect for the law," said Ni.

According to Wang Genfu, former director of the archeological team at Nanjing Museum, the regulations require that construction be halted for good if a site is considered highly significant. In that event, the local government compensates the developer for costs and lost revenue.

However if, as happens on most occasions, the sites are of minor importance and the project is expected to continue once the excavation work has been completed, the developers are expected to cover any losses resulting from the postponement of construction themselves.

Driven by their own interests, most developers have sought to evade the law by keeping news of such discoveries a secret within the cordoned-off area of the construction site.

"Discoveries are usually made in the very early stages of construction, when the groundwork is being done. In that event, the developers' strategy is to finish that part of the job as quickly as possible: Earthmovers will be put to work around the clock and any sign of an ancient tomb will be erased in the blink of an eye, as if it had never existed," said Ni.

The 47-year-old, who as a reporter 10 years ago attempted to break into a construction site where an ancient grave was thought to be located, blamed local governments for acting as "accomplices and protectors" of the developers.

"These days, it's common knowledge that a large part of local governments' annual revenue comes from land sales to real estate developers. Consequently, they are more inclined to align themselves with the developers and turn a blind eye to what they've been doing to our underground legacy," he said.

"One of the few occasions a local government will take a serious interest is if a site is large enough and important enough to be turned into a major tourist attraction, which they hope will bring in millions of dollars in ticket sales."

In other words, the local economy, or more accurately, the pursuance of higher GDP, has dominated the discussion for the protection of China's ancient tombs.

Ni said he could not remember a single instance of a developer being punished for leveling an ancient grave.

"Although the death penalty for tomb raiding was repealed a few years ago, serious offenders can still be sentenced to life imprisonment. On the other hand, no property developer has ever been prosecuted for violating and deleting our collective memory," he said.

"The differences between the two? The first group steals things from graves, but the second demolishes them."

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