Voices Pro & Con at CPAC on China and Bulgaria MOUs

Public Session of the US Cultural Property Advisory Committee to Review Proposed Renewals of MOUs with Bulgaria and China, June 5, 2023

Sacred shrines destroyed by PRC government in Xinjiang, Source: Nathan Ruser, James Leibold, Kelsey Munro, Tilla Hoja: Cultural erasure - Tracing the destruction of Uyghur and Islamic spaces in Xinjiang, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), 24. September 2020.

“It is really heartening to hear about all of the fantastic progress in archaeological protection that China has engaged in for things that are associated with the Han ethnic group, for all the peoples who they are not trying to exterminate. At the same time, it is really disturbing to hear the silence of my archaeological colleagues on the archaeological record of the Uyghurs and Tibetans in China.”

Rian Thum, University of Manchester, speaking on renewal of the US-China MOU at the June 5, 2023 meeting of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee at the Department of State.

On June 5, 2023, the US Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) met in a virtual public session to hear testimony regarding the proposed renewals of MOUs with Bulgaria and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  An update on the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA’s) website made shortly before the hearing provided further information about the requests.  According to that website, Bulgaria has asked for import restrictions on additional categories of archaeological material dating from the Paleolithic Period to the Neolithic (c. 1.6 million years ago – 7500 B.C.) and on additional ethnological material of an ecclesiastical nature dating from 1750 through the 20th century.  In contrast, the PRC sought renewal of import restrictions already in place: objects from the Paleolithic Period (ca. 75,000 B.C.) through the end of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 907), and of monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old.

The public session was postponed from April 26-27, 2023, presumably to allow all the remaining Trump appointees to be replaced by Biden appointees to CPAC.  Those replaced included Anthony Wisniewski, the sole coin collector representative on the Committee.  One of the replacements, Susan Schoenfeld Harrington, has discernible links to the PRC, as a past Board Member of the China Art Foundation.

Despite the postponement, the public was only allowed an exceptionally short time to comment on these MOUs on the regulations.gov website.  Although the Federal Register notice was posted on Friday, May 19, 2023, due to a snafu, the regulations.gov website did not accept comments until midday Monday, May 22, 2023.  The comment period closed only 4 days later, on Friday, May 26, 2023.  Cultural Property Observer has published an analysis of the comments that were submitted.

Oral comments during the public session were also circumscribed.  Rather than the usual 5 minutes, each speaker was only allotted 4 minutes to speak.

The following CPAC members appeared present for the meeting on Zoom:

  • Alexandra Jones (Chair, Represents/Expertise Archaeology, Anthropology, related fields, CEO Archaeology in the Community, Washington, DC); (2)
  • Alex Barker (Represents/Expertise Archaeology, Anthropology, related fields) Director, Arkansas Archeological Survey, Arkansas)
  • Nii Otokunor Quarcoopome (Represents/Expertise Museums, Curator and Department head, Detroit Museum of Art)
  • William Teitelman (Represents General Public, Legislative Counsel to the PA Trial Lawyers Association, Attorney (Retired))
  • Andrew Conners (Represents/Expertise Museums, Director, Albuquerque Museum, New Mexico)
  • Michael Findlay (Represents/Expertise: International Sale of Cultural Property, Director, Acquavella Galleries, New York)
  • Susan Schoenfeld Harrington  (Represents Public?, Past Deputy Finance Chair, Democratic National Committee, Past Board member, China Art Foundation)
  • Cynthia Herbert (Represents/Expertise: International Sale of Cultural Property President, Appretium Appraisal Services LLC, Connecticut)
  • Thomas R. Lamont (Represents Public?, President of Lamont Consulting Services, LLC, Illinois).

Additionally, the following State Department employees were logged into Zoom for the meeting:  Allison Davis (Executive Director, CPAC) and Andrew Zander.

Twelve individuals spoke at the public session about one or both MOUs:

  • Kate Fitz Gibbon (Committee for Cultural Policy/PRC);
  • Elias Gerasoulis (Global Heritage Alliance/PRC);
  • Peter Tompa (International Association of Professional Numismatists/Bulgaria and PRC);
  • Doug Davis (Anti-Counterfeiting Educational Foundation/PRC);
  • Ömür Harmanşah (Archaeological Institute of America/Bulgaria and PRC);
  • Douglas Mudd (American Numismatic Association, Ancient Coin Collectors Guild/Bulgaria);
  • Louisa Greve (Uyghur Human Rights Project/PRC);
  • Peter Irwin (Uyghur Human Rights Project/PRC);
  • Josh Knerly (Hahn, Loeser & Parks, LLP for Association of Art Museum Directors/PRC);
  • Dr. Rowan Flad (Harvard Department of Anthropology/Society for American Archaeology/PRC);
  • Dr. Anne Underhill (Yale/Society for American Archaeology/PRC); and
  • Dr. Rian Thum (Senior Lecturer, University of Manchester/PRC).

Alexandra Jones, CPAC’s chairperson, stated that the Committee had reviewed all the testimony, and asked the speakers to limit their remarks to 4 minutes each.  She said that she would allow CPAC members to ask questions after each speaker finished their prepared remarks.  However, very few questions were actually posed.

Kate Fitz Gibbon of the Committee for Cultural Policy spoke first.  She said that none of the criteria for renewal of the MOU found in the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) could be met.  The second determination, related to the PRC taking measures consistent with the UNESCO Convention concerning the protection of its cultural patrimony, has not been met because of the PRC’s intentional destruction of the cultural heritage of its Uyghur population.  Fitz Gibbon pointed to the creation of concentration camps as well as the destruction of over 500 Uyghur sites in her testimony.  Moreover, the first and third determinations, related to the PRC’s cultural patrimony being in jeopardy, and the effectiveness of the response, could not be met given the booming internal Chinese market for cultural goods.  The fourth determination relating to benefits to the international system could not be met given the PRC’s mercantilist approach to repatriating artifacts and failing to follow through on museum loans.

The Committee for Cultural Policy’s and the Global Heritage Alliance’s joint written testimony can be found on the Federal Register and at Cultural Property News: SPECIAL REPORT: 2023 CHINA MOU – Building China’s Art Monopoly and Destroying Minority Culture and Identity.

Elias Gerasoulis echoed many of the concerns that Fitz Gibbon raised about the PRC’s intentional destruction of minority culture.  He also noted that current import restrictions have the perverse effect of promoting the interests of PRC auction houses associated with the government over their American competitors.  It makes no sense for ECA to undertake to renew the MOU given the anti-American actions the PRC has taken, including the recent spy balloon overflight.  Gerasoulis believes that renewing the MOU would be tantamount to committing diplomatic malpractice.

Peter Tompa asked CPAC to oppose any effort to expand current import restrictions on behalf of Bulgaria to Roman Republican and Roman Imperial coins.  He explained that one cannot assume that such coins come from Bulgarian archaeological contexts.  Only a very small percentage of such coins circulated there compared to those which circulated elsewhere.  He also indicated that it is important to distinguish Roman Republican and Roman Imperial coins from Roman Provincial coins, which are currently restricted.  Roman Provincial coins were struck for local use in contrast to Roman Republican and Roman Imperial coins which were meant to circulate through the Empire.   Due to time constraints, Tompa was only able to express general concerns about the MOU with the PRC.  He mentioned that the PRC should not be rewarded for destroying the cultural property of its minority populations or for its failure to address counterfeiting of US historical coins.

Peter Tompa’s planned oral comments can be found here.

The International Association of Professional Numismatist’s (IAPN’s) written comments about the MOU with Bulgaria can be found here.

IAPN’s written comments about the MOU with the PRC can be found here.

Peter Tompa’s personal written comments can be found here:

Doug Davis indicated that the PRC is a major source of counterfeits with 100,000s of coins being faked.  These are exported in bulk to the US for resale, often to unsuspecting buyers.   The Anti-Counterfeiting Educational Foundation Task Force has worked with US law enforcement on seizing $46 million worth of counterfeit US coins.  In addition to historical US coins, counterfeiters are also faking modern US Mint products including bullion pieces like silver eagles.  This is a global problem because Chinese counterfeiters are faking coins of all nations.

CPAC member Alex Barker asked Davis about what kinds of bullion are being faked. Davis said the fakes include silver bars.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Educational Foundation’s written comments can be found here. 

Ömür Harmanşah indicated that the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) supports the renewals of both MOUs.  The AIA maintains that each of the four criteria for renewal found in the CPIA are met for both MOUs.  Harmanşah mentioned that the PRC recovered 66,000 stolen archaeological artifacts in the year 2021 showing that the PRC’s cultural patrimony is in jeopardy.  Harmanşah stated that it is important to ensure restrictions are imposed on mass produced items like coins to promote their study.  He further noted that the PRC has worked to ensure that there is extensive collaboration with US archaeologists and museums.  For example, an exhibition featuring the famous “Terracotta warriors” has been exhibited in a number of venues around the United States.

The AIA’s written testimony regarding the MOU with Bulgaria can be found here.  The AIA’s written testimony regarding the PRC renewal can be found here.

Douglas Mudd spoke on behalf of the American Numismatic Association (ANA) and the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), a member organization.  Mudd noted that import restrictions have negatively impacted the study of coins.  Because coins are so durable, many have come down to us from ancient times. There are far too few trained archaeologists to study the numbers of coins that have been found and there is no reason to sequester them all in museums.  The most important thing that can be accomplished is to ensure they are properly recorded, something that can be achieved through programs like the UK’s Portable Antiquity Scheme.  Mudd also asked that import restrictions not be imposed on widely circulating Roman Imperial coins.  He further believed that the current designated list should be subject to expert review because many of the coin types currently on that list circulated in quantity outside of the confines of Bulgaria.

The ANA’s written comments can be found here.  The ACCG’s written comments can be found here. 

Louisa Greve, Director of Global Advocacy for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, opposed the MOU with the Peoples Republic of China.  She noted the overwhelming evidence that the PRC is committing genocide against the Uyghurs: CPAC should not brush aside this genocide and cultural cleansing in order to approve the renewal.  The PRC has sought to rewrite history through cultural cleansing to create a false narrative that Han was the dominant culture throughout what is today the PRC.  If CPAC and ECA approves this MOU, the Uyghur Human Rights Project will protest the decision.

The UHRP’s written comments can be found here.

Peter Irwin, Senior Program Officer for Advocacy and Communications at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said that China’s government has not worked to protect cultural heritage, but to purposefully destroy that of the Uyghurs.  Some 10,000 to 15,000 sites have been destroyed to date.  These include mosques and up to 85% of the historic city of Kashgar. The MOU should not be extended in these circumstances.

Josh Knerly stated the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) supports the extension of the MOU with the PRC contingent on Article II being modified to provide for multi-year museum loans with more significant objects and the PRC granting immunity from seizure for art sent there for display from the US.  He pointed out that he 2019 renewal of the MOU dropped any meaningful requirements regarding loans.  Multi-year loans are necessary to make it cost effective to bring exhibits to the US.  Only multi-year loans allow museums to share the substantial costs involved. Another issue is US tariffs of 7.5% on Chinese art, which make it impossible for US museums to purchase Chinese art internationally.  Such tariffs give Chinese museums, dealers and collectors a competitive advantage compared to their American counterparts.

CPAC member Susan Schoenfeld Harrington asked Knerly if the MOU provides an opportunity for cultural exchange with the PRC.  Knerly said for this to happen, the PRC needs to change its policies on long term loans and immunity from seizure.  The AAMD’s written comments can be found here.

Archaeologist Dr. Rowan Flad indicates that the PRC has undertaken significant self-help measures to protect its own cultural patrimony.  A database of cultural heritage has been established.  He said that the PRC engages in active collaboration with American archaeologists. Dr. Flad’s written testimony may be found here.

Archaeologist Dr. Anne Underhill stated that the PRC has met its obligations under the MOU because it has protected archaeological sites from looting.  One innovative program has used drones to monitor a site for looting.  Another development is an increase in “indoor excavations,” for which entire depositional matrices are transported to covered labs for careful excavation in safe conditions.  Regarding prosecutions, in 2020, 4,200 crimes were investigated, involving 9,700 individuals. Some 93,000 artifacts were recovered.  She said that access to museums has improved. Underhill’s written comments can be found here.

Dr. Rian Thum began by saying that he could not make policy determinations, but he could state facts.  It is an unassailable fact that the PRC has failed to take measures consistent with the UNESCO Convention to protect its cultural patrimony.  It has demolished large parts of the Silk Road city of Kashgar.  China has recently bulldozed two of the most important and sacred Uyghur shrines, destroying not only the centuries old buildings but also any earlier archaeological artifacts beneath them.  Books are targeted by the PRC for book burning.  Initially PRC authorities enforced a “blacklist” of forbidden books.  Now, however, that has been replaced with a “whitelist” which deems any book not explicitly permitted to be forbidden.  This has led to the confiscation and destruction of countless books, some of which are otherwise unknown to scholarship.  Door to door searches of people’s houses have prompted some Uyghurs to burn their own books in an effort to avoid being sent to concentration camps.  As was discussed regarding Bulgaria, modern boundaries don’t always correspond with ancient ones.  The same is also true with the status of the Uyghur region in the PRC.  Thum observed that all of the PRC’s achievements prior speakers associated with archaeological advocacy groups praised relate solely to the study of the PRC’s Han culture. These studies feed the PRC’s narrative, which seeks to rewrite history to make it appear that Han culture was always the dominant culture in the Uyghur areas.  Thum expressed his disappointment that his colleagues are unwilling to acknowledge the PRC’s intentional destruction of Uyghur cultural heritage for political purposes.

No CPAC members asked any additional questions, and Chairwoman Alexandra Jones concluded the public session approximately 10 minutes early.


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