[Viewpoint]Sino-French squabble

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[Viewpoint]Sino-French squabble

‘Should the two bronze sculptures that were part of the Yves Saint Laurent collection auctioned off by Christie’s be returned to China?” The French newspaper Le Figaro recently asked this question in an online poll over the fate of the bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit, taken from China’s Old Summer Palace nearly 150 years ago by invading French and British forces.

The world was paying attention to the issue, and the newspaper’s Internet site was flooded with visitors. About 80,000 voted, 10 times more than the average turnout for an online poll. About 86 percent said the sculptures should be returned to China.

The newspaper investigated the matter further, and found that tens of thousands of Internet users in China had clicked “return” en masse.

What happened during the poll was reminiscent of the group actions of the Chinese in Paris several times last year. When the Beijing Olympics torch relay took place, human rights activists in Europe obstructed the event, condemning China’s oppression of Tibet. At the time, some youngsters from Tibet showed on up the streets of Paris and flew their national flags as locals applauded in support.

Moments later, a throng of Chinese students showed up with Chinese flags, outnumbering the Tibetans. Shouting, “China!” they pushed the Tibetans away.

A few days later, the Chinese students also held a demonstration, claiming that the French government had intentionally allowed the rights activists to obstruct the torch relay.

When France took issue with the human rights violations in Tibet, boycotts of French products and trips to France began in China. The anti-French sentiment in China calmed down relatively quickly, but was reignited when French President Nicolas Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama. More anti-France boycotts and protests took place.

After China’s human wave tactics, anti-Chinese sentiment gradually boiled over in France. Some argued that the Chinese government was fueling indecent nationalism to divert the Chinese people’s attentions from the economic crisis. Le Figaro also issued a commentary, cynically pointing out that if it conducted an online poll asking “Should the Dalai Lama be executed?” tens of millions Chinese Internet users would frantically click “Yes.”

Not only in France, but also in Korea, Chinese people got violent in the streets during last year’s torch relay. At the time, a group of young Chinese assaulted passersby, but tried to justify their actions as patriotism.

The Chinese people’s feelings about the auction of the bronze sculptures are understandable, but their boorish way of trying to solve everything with brute force and sheer numbers is ugly.

France’s attitude is also childish and unworthy of a great nation. The the bronze sculpture incident started because the artifacts put on sale were taken from China by France. Although the Chinese government and people strongly condemned the auction and demanded the sculptures be returned, the French government issued no official statement. All that came out of Paris was an unofficial position that the government had nothing to do with it because the art works were collected by a well-intentioned individual.

In 2007, when Korea’s prime minister at the time, Han Duck-soo, visited Paris in 2007, he held a joint press conference with his French counterpart, Francois Fillon. In the media conference, I asked Fillon, “Isn’t it about time that France keeps its promise to return the “Oe-kyujanggak” volumes to Korea?”

I was not expecting Fillon to say that the royal Korean archives will be returned immediately. But I thought he would at least give an excuse, like former French President Francois Mitterrand had. Mitterrand, at the time, said the archives were deeply appreciated by the staff of the French museum, so there was nothing he could do to return the books to Korea.

Fillon’s answer to my question, however, was extremely disappointing. He said France had never promised to return the Oe-kyujanggak archives in return for winning the bid for the bullet train project in Korea.

It is understandable that France is reluctant to return the artifacts it plundered from around the world, because the first thing that should be given back is the Egyptian obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, which stands at the center of Paris and is a landmark of the city.

But, if it is difficult to return all the spoils right now, France should at least admit to its past plundering and express a modicum of courtesy. However, the great cultural nation of France doesn’t appear to have a sense of humility.

The Yves Saint Laurent collection used to represent the beauty and cultural magnificence of the world during the 20th century. But the auction ended with confirmations of France’s shallowness and China’s rudeness. This episode has been a great disappointment.

*The writer is the Paris correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Jeon Jin-bae
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