In the light of international conventions, governments of countries are entitled to investigate and catalog national cultural relics (including ones lost overseas) for the purpose of preservation and research. Countries such as the Republic of Korea, Japan, France, and Italy have done a lot in this field, and some of them have almost built up their national database of the lost cultural relics.
This field is still not that familiar to Chinese people. For instance, we can hardly tell how many cultural relics are lost overseas. There are different figures given but, to my knowledge, they are not exact.
The number is not actually the most important issue. Since the mid-1800s, a large amount of Chinese cultural relics have been exported, most through illegal channels. Since there is not a clear picture of their current locations and export routes, it will be hard to recover them and their cultural value cannot be fully assessed.
The overseas survey of looted cultural relics from the Old Summer Palace meets the needs of academic research by cultural organizations and also reflects Chinese people's growing concern about stolen cultural relics. The State Administration of Cultural Heritage encourages and supports such campaigns, and hopes foreign museums and libraries will cooperate on this issue.
The Chinese Government is paying great attention to the recovery of stolen Chinese relics (including those looted from the Old Summer Palace). China will never change its stance on returning stolen heritage to its country of origin. We have consistently opposed the auction of stolen or illegally exported cultural relics from China and disapproved of their buying back by Chinese museums. The lost treasures should be returned to China through diplomatic and legal means and in accordance with relevant legal frameworks and the principles of the international community.
Museums are public welfare institutions for preserving and curating human civilization. Their function is borderless. On these premises, China is willing to promote cooperation and exchanges with different museums, making full use of the value of cultural relics currently housed in overseas museums to carry forward Chinese culture.
For governments and organizations helping China's recovery of lost cultural relics, China will expand bilateral exchanges in cultural areas.
The author is director of the Museum Department of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. This article is edited excerpts of an interview Song gave to the Guangming Daily