It is one of China’s main tourist attractions, an ancient emperor’s palace in the heart of Beijing visited by up to 80,000 tourists a day and long recognized as a world treasure by UNESCO.
However, the Palace Museum, more commonly known as the Forbidden City, is in danger of turning into a national embarrassment amid allegations of embezzlement, tax avoidance, lax security and concerns about an infestation of termites.
In recent weeks the museum has been forced to deny allegations that it paid 100,000 yuan (US$15,650) to a blackmailer in 2009 to try to cover up an embezzlement scam involving its security guards and tour guides.
Besides this, the museum has admitted losing more than 100 ancient books of high historical value and it has been accused of dodging taxes on at least part of its 500 million yuan annual gate receipt by issuing tickets without official seals to one of the exhibitions.
“The museum is openly taking money from visitors without putting it through the books,” said Chen Bingcai (陳炳才), a former official with the Chinese State Administration of Foreign Exchange, who first made the claims online, according to Chinese state media.
These are just the latest in a long line of public relations disasters that have befallen the tourist attraction since the start of May.
On May 8, a 28-year-old unemployed man managed to make off with nine artifacts on loan to the museum after he hid in the compound until nightfall then slipped past the museum’s security system.
He escaped by scaling a 10m wall while the guard was on the telephone to headquarters.
Most of the artifacts have been recovered and the man arrested.
However, soon afterward, the museum was embroiled in another scandal. Rumors spread on the Internet that one of the museum’s newly renovated sections, usually closed to the public, was to be used as an exclusive club for wealthy members.
The museum initially denied the existence of the elite club, which reports suggested had a 1 million yuan membership fee, calling it “pure nonsense” in a press release.
The denial was retracted after photographs appeared online of the club’s opening ceremony.
Allegations of a termite infestation, porcelain plates dating back 1,000 years found broken and an ancient wooden screen accidentally immersed in water during restoration work, have also damaged the museum’s professional reputation.
Many of these allegations first appeared online, posted anonymously by whistleblowers.
According to the state-owned Global Times newspaper, last week’s anonymous allegations of tax dodging and lost books have been confirmed by the museum’s news department.
The Forbidden City, built in the 15th century, lies just to the north of Tiananmen Square. It served as the seat of government and empire for almost 500 years.