Not forbidden?

Private photo shoot rouses anger about Palace privileges


Before having tea with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a state visit in 2017, Donald Trump explored the Forbidden City on foot. The last foreign dignitary allowed to tour the former imperial residence in a vehicle was Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He did so in October 2013 in a golf cart because the 81 year-old had just had a leg operation.

A few months earlier French President Francois Hollande was planning to drive his motorcade into the 720,000 square-metre complex. However, Shan Jixiang, then curator of the Palace Museum, which is housed inside the Forbidden City, refused to grant an exemption to the rules. Seeing Hollande’s security staff ignoring the protocols, Shan then closed the main gates. The French leader was forced to get out of his car and come in on foot.

Visitors’ cars, Shan had explained, were not allowed into Buckingham Palace or Versailles. And the Forbidden City – home to 24 Chinese emperors over five centuries – should not make any exceptions either. “The army of the Eight-Nation Alliance entered the Forbidden City [in 1900 after the Boxer Rebellion] riding on horses,” Shan added. “We talk about cultural renaissance these days and this has to start with our own culture, a culture of dignity… Everyone should be equal.”

The video of Shan giving that lecture went viral again last week. But this time it was because Chinese netizens were poking fun at how privileged locals are still enjoying special status in the Forbidden City.

The reason: a photo that made the rounds on Sina Weibo showing two young women posing alongside a Mercedes SUV inside the Forbidden City. One of the ladies wrote that they were enjoying an exclusive tour on January 13, a day when the historic landmark was closed to the public.

Netizens were soon cranking up the much-feared ‘human flesh search’ and revealing the womens’ identities. One of the ladies in question was said to be married to He Gang, the grandson of He Changgong, who joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. If true, she belongs to a well-connected group known as hongerdai, or ‘red second- generation’, the princeling ‘aristocracy’ descended from the Party’s revolutionary leaders.

Further revelations soon followed: for instance, the woman’s weibo profile implied she was the owner of a luxury mansion valued at more than $11.8 million in California’s Newport Beach.

The digital vitriol spread as netizens questioned why the well-connected were getting private passes for photo shoots at the iconic site (which is visited by tens of thousands on regular days) and bringing their luxury cars in to boot. Even the People’s Daily weighed in, calling for an investigation and warning of an “image crisis” if the museum has failed to abide by the rules.

Palace Museum officials were soon making an abject apology. “In the future, we will manage more strictly and make sure such an incident never happens again.”

The Shanghai Media Group-run then reported on efforts to take some of the heat out of the row. More than 200 people were invited to the museum for a private event, the news website explained, and a temporary parking lot was set up (where the women took the photos) due to an overflow of cars.

Arguably the debacle can be traced back to Shan’s legacy. Before leaving his post as the museum’s curator in April last year, he introduced a range of initiatives to monetise the Forbidden City’s heritage. For example, the Palace Museum has developed more than 10,000 ‘cultural and creative products’ available for purchase – through which it earns more than $150 million in annual revenues (see WiC435). It even boasts its own lipstick brand (see WiC462).

Private events are another growing source of income for the museum. Its latest offering was an exclusive opportunity to host a ‘reunion dinner’ within the hallowed confines of the otherwise deserted Forbidden City at Chinese New Year. According to Xinhua, the dinner menu was priced at Rmb6,688 ($970) for 10 people.

After more brouhaha online, the culinary offer was rescinded. But combined with the row over the female photoshoot it was another setback for an institution that’s been no stranger to bad PR over the years. A bit like another institution that this month struggled with a double whammy of bad news – the British monarchy – the Palace Museum will be hoping misfortunes don’t come in threes…

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