Historic museum deal ruled illegal

2008-01-20 19:58:03 Xinhua English

A COUNTY government in northern Shanxi Province has been forced to suspend a controversial plan to allow private investors to manage a famous two-century-old courtyard seen in Chinese director Zhang Yimou's 1990 film, "Raise the Red Lantern."

In late December, officials in Qixian County agreed to let a trio of investment companies establish a tourism development company to manage the Qiao Family Courtyard, a key cultural relic under state protection.

The site was renovated as a folk-culture museum in the 1980s and became an important tourist destination. Covering 8,700 square meters, the Qiao courtyard showcases the unusual architectural style of residential housing in north China.

The plan caused an outrage, with critics saying the deal was tantamount to selling off the national heritage. Higher-level officials stepped in and ordered an end to the arrangement.

"The management rights transfer is illegal as it is against the Law on Protection of Cultural Relics, which forbids the transforming of state-owned cultural relics into enterprise assets," said Ning Lixin, deputy director with the Provincial Cultural Relics Protection Bureau.

"Usually in China, ticket income is used for cultural-relic protection. But it is hard to guarantee that the money will be properly used if cultural relics are managed by an enterprise."

A task force was formed to investigate the issue and submitted a report to the provincial government, which has yet to respond, said Ning.

Under the terms of the agreement, Qixian Yuanda Investment Co Ltd and two other investment companies said they would invest 200 million yuan (US$27.61 million) to protect the courtyard and develop local tourism. The company would keep all ticket income for 20 years, paying the Qixian county government 10 million yuan in "cultural-relic protection fees" each year.

Li Dingfu, head of the county government, said the transfer was intended to "introduce more investment for building maintenance and to tap the potential of the Qiao Family Courtyard and its neighborhood as tourist attractions."

However, museum employees are opposed to the deal, saying it "sells off state property at a cheap price."

The courtyard, the former home of banker Qiao Zhiyong (1818-1907), had more than 800,000 visitors in 2007, with ticket income more than 20 million yuan, according to the museum ticket office.