Peter Neville-Hadley in the Wall Street Journal delves deeper into the controversy stirred up by the Chinese over items looted from the sacked Summer palace:
Strident demands for the unconditional surrender of looted works of art are frequently made by Chinese officials. In the Chinese narrative, the destruction and looting of the Summer Palace were simply wanton acts of foreign imperialist greed and oppression, and are repeatedly presented as such in schools and the media. The aim is to show foreigners as united in attempting to invade and oppress China, and the Communist Party as the only bulwark behind which the Chinese people can effectively come together.
In fact, the British and French forces were present in China to obtain ratification of a treaty concluded with the Manchu overlords of China two years earlier, and under arrangements agreed with a Manchu prince, they sent an advance party under flag of truce to arrange details of the signing at a village just east of Beijing. The members of the party were taken prisoner and tortured; 18 died.
The looting and destruction of the Summer Palace was in revenge for this kidnapping and murder. British plenipotentiary Lord Elgin chose to strike directly at the Manchu Qing dynasty, much despised by the Chinese themselves, destroying palaces and art collections, rather than causing further loss of Chinese life. But it is rare for any narrative of 1860 other than the government’s own to appear in China. In 2006 when philosophy Professor Yuan Weishi suggested in China Youth Daily’s Freezing Point supplement that the destruction was largely the result of Manchu stupidity, he was disciplined, the publication was suspended for “rectification,” and its editor, fired.
China Goes Treasuring Hunting (Wall Street Journal)