Experts On The Take: Dissecting A Chinese Penchant For Fraud In High Places

Essay: Widespread allegations in China of corruption among experts in the antique business is a metaphor for a society where the highest forms of knowledge have become a means to an end.

Forbidden City's Palace Museum (beltzner)
Forbidden City's Palace Museum (beltzner)
Wu Yue Sanjen

BEIJING - The "Jade dress' is an object that existed in the ancient burial rituals of China. Yes, the armor-like gold-threaded jade dress was a favorite outfit for the dead. It was said to be capable of preventing the corpse from corruption, and was a privilege naturally reserved only for the rich and nobility.

Occasionally, parts and bits as such dresses are found in the antique market, but rarely is a complete dress to be seen, nor is it likely to reach an ordinary collector's hand.

In a recent trial of a bank loan fraud case, XIE Genrong, the boss of Beijing Yanshan Group, is alleged to have illegally obtained 700 million RMB of loans from the China Construction Bank over the past three years. According to the investigation, Xie used two burial jade dresses as collateral, declaring them to be priceless items from his own collection.

The whole story turned out to be a hoax. The so-called jade dresses were in fact made by Niu Fu Zhong, an expert for both a Beijing TV program called "Treasures of the World," and an independent center for the identification of artifacts. The dress was made using pieces of jade that were provided by Xie Genrong himself.

And why did the bank believe in the credibility of Xie? Simply because these two dresses had been certified by five experts from the Palace Museum, and estimated at an astronomical value of 2.4 billion RMB. These five experts were engaged by Niu, and as a reward they shared hundreds of thousands of appraisal fees.

Now years have passed and the whole thing has been revealed to the public. One of the five experts has died, so naturally the other four have directed all responsibility on their dead colleague. They say they simply had confidence in his opinion. This is as shameless as one can imagine.

It's well known that the antique business is a tricky one. It's like deep-water ocean dive. There is no lack of unscrupulous so-called experts willing to come out with unreliable assertions. Even if one has bought something fake, as long as you can find an expert to identify the object as a genuine one, then worthless junk can turn to priceless treasure.

Among all the experts, the specialists from the National Palace Museum are, of course, considered the most reliable. People are easily impressed by the name "Palace Museum" and imagine that these people are experienced and knowledgeable, and beyond reproach.

In a normal society, an expert is someone who is respected and who uses his expertise to give advice -- and thus enjoys his social status. Professionalism and reputation are their life, as well as the very reason why people are willing to pay them. So they cherish their honor.

Yet in China, calling someone an expert is like cursing him. Not that they are not specialized enough, but because too many of them abuse their reputation and credibility in blatantly misidentifying fakes.

Drunk with knowledge

And the abuse of power of expertise is hardly limited to cultural artifacts. Whenever some social issue occurs, there are always experts even eager to provide the necessary window dressing for the institutions in power.

What is puzzling is that in other places knowledge is what makes people sober. Knowledge enables the one who masters it to draw a clear boundary of his behavior, to make him conscious of basic intellectual and academic integrity, to prevent him from misbehaving. This is precisely like a well-trained martial arts expert, who learns to restrain himself to avoid acting recklessly.

Only one condition makes one give up such constraint. It is when the knowledge itself is not what one pursues, but as a means for unscrupulously achieving profit.

Why does this happen in China? Because in our society, authority is being transformed into authoritarianism. And the authoritarianism in turn is used for profit-making. It has neither control, nor consent; and as a consequence, it needs not be responsible for the knowledge itself.

From the top to the bottom, this is the norm of Chinese society today.

When the authority has to prove its legitimacy, it must kidnap other forces to act as its endorsement. As the proverb says: if the rumor needs denying, it must be true. This is almost a metaphor, a microcosm of the defeat of social values.

When the most credible and reputable lose the public's confidence, when the experts become the white gloves covering the filth of institutions or counterfeiters themselves, this society naturally loses its most basic function of ensuring justice.

Many events that have happened in recent years demonstrate that the people or institutions most trusted by the people to protect them are actually the cause of the disasters.

However gorgeous it may be, the jade dress remains an object for a dead body. However stunning the expert's title may be, when abused it will just turn itself into something foul.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - beltzner

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